One Small Death Before the Plague
Gerry was a ringer. He played for whatever tennis club on the peninsula would have him for the season. At age forty-one he was at the lower rung of the 40+ league, faster than the huffing guys a decade older and still hitting a good, heavy, deep ball from his days as number-one singles on his high school team in Milpitas. Muscles remembered, he sometimes thought with amazement, no matter how lonely or confused the rest of you got.
The lights on poles over the tennis courts at Junipero Club gathered cones of marine mist. Planes headed for SFO occasionally broke through the steady thunk of the balls, but the early September evening was pleasant, with pockets of cooler air from the bay traveling across still-warm courts. Gerry’s opponent, a tall guy with a wide sweatband around his bald head, had a wicked slice and quick hands. Gerry won the toss and served first; he took the game but only after several deuces. This match was going to be harder than he’d expected.
At the changeover Gerry realized he’d forgotten his water bottle in the fridge. Damn. He poured water from the cooler into one of the club’s dinky paper cups and gulped it. This would be a night of chasing thirst. His opponent—Bill? Bob?—said, “Sorry to hear about Luke.”
“Yeah.” Gerry hardly knew Luke, the guy he was playing for.
His opponent frowned as if that wasn’t the right answer.
What happened to Luke? Usually it was some kind of ankle injury or a rotator cuff, not enough to mention. Gerry looked at his opponent.
“Dropping dead just when your last kid’s graduated college. What a deal.”
Dead? “You never know.” No longer on earth. Gerry’s chest tightened.
The opponent sipped a cloudy, blue power drink. He had another two bottles of it lined up on his side of the bench, Nadal style. “He was in better shape than me,” he said. “The heart’s a funny thing. I heard that he’d just had a physical and passed with flying colors.”
“Crying shame.” Cool sweat sprang up on Gerry’s face, the backs of his hands. A strange exhilaration rose through him, playing for a dead man. “Hard to know what to say.”
“Yeah.” The opponent headed to the service line and picked up the three balls at the T. He quickly called the score and served an ace.
Gerry hadn’t been ready but let it go. Some guys snuck in a few quick-serves, and you looked like a whiner if you complained. Now he knew.
A woman was sitting under a tree on the viewers’ mound in the spot by the third table, where Luke’s wife usually sat. Had she been there all along? Luke’s wife was often a quiet bystander who enjoyed the game but didn’t play. Strange that she would come out alone so soon.
The opponent served another ace out wide that Gerry couldn’t come near. His feet were suddenly lead. She must have been in the sleepwalk state, hardly knowing what she was doing. She tilted her head, a faint movement Gerry caught out of the corner of his eye. The tree rattled its dark leaves above her, backlit from the entry light in the clubhouse kept on 24/7 to discourage burglars.
In the past Gerry had barely noticed her, though once she’d handed him a beer after a match, and a light, spicy scent had lingered for a moment. It was so faint he hadn’t been sure if it was from food or perfume, more a shift in the air around her. She wasn’t what you would call good-looking but there was something.
The opponent’s next serve toss was too low, and this time Gerry got a racket on it, but the ball shot off into the next court. 40-love before he’d blinked.
“Nice serve, Boyd,” she called out from the little hill, her voicehusky. Gerry looked directly at her, a small woman under a tree, her grief so new and baffling that she was cheering for the wrong side. Well, at least she’d given his opponent a name: Boyd.
Gerry got set. A surge of strength coursed through him. He sent a vicious return up the line that made Boyd stumble back as he scrambled for it. Then Gerry struck an easy put-away. Ha. He glanced over at the widow in victory, ridiculously proud of himself, playing for her, the gladiator making her feel a little better.
But she called out to encourage Boyd, “Next time!” Wait. She was trying to cheer for the other guy.
Two more hard-fought points and Gerry lost. Total score 1-1. The woman clapped for Boyd.
Her husband must have died about two weeks ago, his name still on the last posting of the lineups. He was maybe fifty so they could have been married thirty years, then poof. Gerry stuffed a ball in his pocket, left the other one at the fence, and served out wide and high. Boyd couldn’t come near it; it skittered off to the next court, and he quickly loped after it.
Beyond, the bay had blackened to empty space, no lights in the east where they should have been. Must have been a thicker fog over there. Gerry had been married for seven years, five years before the baby and then officially two more. Stillborn—not a baby. When the heartbeat went silent, the doctors induced. Gerry had cried for two days, and then it was over for him. They were young. They had lots of time; the doctors said there was no reason it would happen again, but Kristy couldn’t get over it.
The next game seesawed for over ten minutes, the widow’s voice floating into the night whenever Boyd lobbed high over Gerry’s head or sliced the ball along the net so Gerry could only stand and watch. Sweating hard, his shirt soaked, he finally won and trotted over to her. He had to set this straight.
She looked up at him with just her eyes. Large, clear eyes. Lipstick. Hair with streaks of gray clipped back. But cheeks like something that had been peeled, white, the small lines contouring over stark bones. No confusion there. She’d been struck by lightning and knew it. He was the muddled one. “I’m sorry,” he said, somehow not wanting to use that final phrase, “for your loss.” An odd sense of failure came over him.
“Yes.” Nothing more. She was deep in her own thoughts.
“You OK?” he asked. Idiot.
She didn’t bother with sarcasm or any sound. Inside the club a few people leaving the club bar moved past the light, causing the darkness to waver back and forth.
“Sorry for that…I don’t know…”
What now? He couldn’t just turn around and go back to the court. The quickness in his chest felt like strings breaking.
Finally she moved her chin a little, as if slightly coming to life, and said, “Here’s what you want to know. My sister just left. One daughter had to go back to La Jolla to work, and the other just got a job near my sister in Marin. My goddaughter is babysitting me until the weekend. I snuck out the window.”
“You didn’t.” Even his admiration seemed babyish next to her monumental sadness.
She stared at the courts, five blue rectangles within chain-link fences, the farthest one slipping into blackness like an infinity pool. He said, “I have to go play.”
She nodded. “He’s noticed that you don’t step back enough for your overhead.” She faintly lifted a brow. “Your ego makes you think you can get it.”
A small cut, not a big one, but a little thud of dread rose through Gerry, as if he’d been attacked or was about to be attacked. He couldn’t remember whose serve it was and just headed mid-court while Boyd finished toweling off at the side. The dread was a stone weighing him down, like the morning fear from a dream. He told himself that of course she would be all-powerful for a while, uncaring what mere mortals thought, cutting or kind, feeling no difference. With a start he remembered the feeling from a long time ago. The widow had walked off the cliff into thin air and anything could happen. Someone might save her or she could drop into a hole in the earth.
The mesh windscreens hanging from the chain-link fence looked flimsy, the painted court lines cartoonish. Suddenly daytime seemed far away, the sun rolling away with the expanding universe, leaving only a dark breeze behind.
Finally Boyd headed to the baseline, lifted a ball to show Gerry he was about to serve, and hit a missile. Gerry stepped around the body serve and sent a shot crosscourt, a clothesline shot that caught Boyd off-guard.
The comforting smell of toast wafted from the club, someone getting a last snack in the members’ kitchen. Gerry thought, Tennis. Nothing more. Nothing less. A blessing. The widow was quiet, no longer rooting against him. Tears came to his eyes. She was all right. No, she wasn’t. She would be. He willed his heart to slow down, a trick he’d learned when he was young and scared.
He had been seventeen when he got his first job in construction and didn’t know what he was doing—there was the nailer skittering out of his hands and shooting a 3½-inch nail across his brow. He still had the scar. The time he fell off a roof at dusk, just as the last man was leaving the site.
Maybe he wouldn’t survive the next hour of tennis. Maybe he’d drop from a heart attack. He turned his back to make Boyd wait for a second. Out of the light he could see stars, sharp tacks in the sky that appeared as if shot from a gun. They’d seen a lot of deaths. They didn’t care. This was what Kristy had not understood. It didn’t matter how long she cried.
He blocked the next serve so it stopped and held in the air; Boyd lobbed it high. Anticipating the move, Gerry slid back and hit a perfect smash. He tried not to look at the widow but, against his will, saw her out of the corner of his eye, a statue with bowed head in the shadow, lost. He wanted to lift her up and yell at her, “Thanks for the tip! I’m going to win this thing. You made it happen!” Such a night. He wasn’t himself. Usually he played quietly and steadily, as if doing a satisfying job. Luke was the kind to get worked up and use language, which the clubs frowned on. They acted like everyone still wore white flannels and bowed to the queen afterward.
He broke Boyd in that first game but lost the next three.
Gerry needed more sleep. He’d thought that for a while. A restlessness had come over him for months. He should stop working so much. At the first of the year, he’d hired three assistant managers, but one of them hadn’t worked out, and the others needed a lot of guidance. Managing two small shopping centers—really just fancy strip malls with smoothie bars and blowout salons—wasn’t that hard, but there was always something—plumbing, a patron crashing an
SUV into signage, paperwork on the latest shoplifting charge. Gerry sometimes told the few women he dated that he was like a shark that couldn’t afford to stop moving. He liked moving but hadn’t figured out how to sleep. They’d laugh. He’d laugh. But lately he’d gotten the hollow feeling that he really couldn’t slow down and someday would just swim off into the bay and through the Golden Gate and out into the vast bowl of scudding waves.
The widow started cheering for Boyd again. Dew made the balls skid off the lines, which should have been good for Gerry’s power game, but his deep shots started to land long. Boyd sliced and diced his way to a lead. Gerry couldn’t keep his mind on what was happening. What was happening?
His wife, Kristy, had burrowed into her sadness, deep down into the possibilities of sadness. Further than Gerry had ever been. After two months she said she couldn’t stay with him.
“You could,” he said. He felt like he was behind a door she’d locked; she tended a different world on her side.
“No,” she said. “That’s the problem. You don’t understand. This— how I am today.” She was standing in the kitchen. He’d just come home from picking up paint for the south side of the utility yard fence.
He put his hand on the granite counter. “Tomorrow will be different.” If only she could see that.
“Look at me,” she said. “What do you see?”
“Honestly?” She was trying to trap him.
She rolled her eyes.
“Someone who’s gone too far.” She was a mess. He wouldn’t say that. “You don’t have to let this happen,” he said.
“That’s what you don’t understand. It happened. We don’t have a choice.”
“We always have a choice.” She made him feel sullen, stupid. “You’re like talking to the wind.”
He couldn’t lose her. When they’d gotten married, he’d realized how far he’d come. She knew him as a successful guy. He’d just gotten the job at the first shopping center. He was good at logistics, details, holding together a large project. During the good times she’d put her arm through his and kiss the back of his neck. He needed that; he needed her. He vowed to grieve.
Score: 4-5. Gerry had to win the next serve to have a chance in the second set. He went over to the widow and said, “I know how you feel.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“I lost a son.”
A flicker. A breath taken up in sympathy.
“Stillborn,” he said, her raw face requiring truth.
That face shut down. “Stillborn.” A pause. “You didn’t wake up with him every morning, his chest against your back.”
He said, “My wife left me.”
She lifted her eyes again and sighed. “Do you think I care?”
“Be careful,” he said, reeling. “You think that whatever you say now doesn’t count but it does.”
“Good. A lecture. What I need.”
Her low voice was a weapon blowing holes in the night. How long had Gerry been living in silence?
“You should cheer for me,” he said.
“I don’t know you. I know Boyd. I’ve watched him before.”
“I’m in your club.”
He felt cast out unfairly. So unfairly.
“You think I’m replacing him,” he said, wanting to pierce her sadness.
“Luke,” she said, her voice rising. “You should have said ‘Luke.’” She turned her naked face to him, her eyes wild. “And keep your sick armchair whatever to yourself. He’s dead. I’m not. And you’re going to lose because Boyd knows how to push your buttons. There, how’s that for some good armchair analysis.”
“I’m not going to lose.” Anger rose so quick and steep that he took a step back. He felt oddly useless, tongue-tied, so angry. He’d meant to bring her comfort. He went back to the court and won the next game.
When Kristy talked about separating, he took two weeks off and told her things would be different. He held her in his arms while she sighed and said she wondered if hope had been driven right out of her. He wanted to go to a café and drink coffee. Jog. In those days he jogged. Go to work. He vacuumed. Cleaned the kitchen until the granite needed to be resealed. Fixed her healthy meals and told her to eat.
He tried so hard to mourn, but a big, pulsing nothingness came over him when he thought of the awful hours he’d coached her to breathe as she gave birth to that bundle he’d seen in the nurse’s arms. It was like a small, rubber turtle scrunched up against the nurse’s flowered uniform. His little face looked powdered, bluish, not even as alive as a stuffed animal, just a cold, dead, folded thing. Or maybe he wasn’t cold? The nurse held it out to him, but he said no, he didn’t need that. She could wrap him up and take him away.
Instead she wrapped him up and gave him to Kristy to say good-bye.
Boyd won the second set.
The widow clapped. She went into the club. Maybe she’d leave. Then he could properly play for two, untarnished by her opposition. Play for Luke. Win for Luke! Put the night back together. Let the widow go blow up someone else with her awful sorrow.
Between sets Boyd lay down on his back on the court and pulled up one knee, then the other.
Good. Back trouble. All Gerry had to do was hit a few angles and make Boyd run. He’d been distracted and now everything seemed clear. Tomorrow had come, just as he’d predicted. He’d punched his way through. He was alive. Strong, the cooling night surging through his lungs. The widow was gone but her electric indifference fueled him. Poor Boyd, tightening up in the cool breeze.
Gerry took a deep, satisfying breath and served to start the deciding set. Boyd didn’t get a point. Soon Gerry was up by a break. The widow came back and took her seat. Gerry missed an easy volley and smashed his racket on the ground like a junior. The frame cracked and he had to get his second racket from his bag. As he went to the bench, the widow said, “See, ego.”
Furious, he leaped halfway up the mound before stopping himself. What was he going to do? Hit her? “What did you say?”
“I said, ego. Your undoing.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“No reason. Something to do. Better than killing someone.” She was infinitely calm, becalmed, a sailor on a flat sea dying of thirst.
He went back to the courts and played some of the best tennis of his life. Yet Boyd hung on, coming to the net and finishing points early to save his back. They got to a seven-point tiebreaker to decide the match.
Gerry calmly walked up to her before they started and quietly asked, “Would you go home now? Please. Leave me to my fate?”
“Just when things were getting interesting?” But even as she said it, a look crossed her face. “I sleep on the floor,” she said. A long pause. “With the boogeymen. I can’t sleep in the bed. My goddaughter gave me her camping pad.” A piece of hair got loose from the clip and crossed her face. She tucked it behind her ear, then reached up and took his hand in both of hers. “You’ve given me two hours and seven minutes.” She shook his hand, as if they’d just agreed on something. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” he said because that seemed right. He turned and walked back slowly, a great ease coming over him. Boyd served and Gerry cracked the return up the line, but Boyd somehow got it and dinked a winner just over the net.
The widow cheered for Boyd.
Gerry smiled. He played well and got up 5-2. Easy. He just had to hold his nerve. The automatic lights went out on the farthest court, bringing the darkness closer. And in that instant he remembered one terrible moment. Kristy had said that she’d spent eight months talking to their son, telling him what she was doing—“Now I’m sitting on the porch. Now I’m folding the wash.” She said she wanted him to know how things worked before he arrived so he’d be competent at existence. This was why she couldn’t say good-bye so fast.
“It doesn’t help to be sentimental,” he’d said. Oh no, he hadn’t said that. He had. On the tennis court his cheeks burned with shame. He’d wanted to wound her, punish her for leaving their old life behind long before he’d even known she was gone. Pregnant, she’d already turned her back on him and faced the slow-moving miracle. She was lost in awe, lost to him. He hadn’t known.
It was his serve but he stood without moving. He was the one who couldn’t go forward, before or after the death. A ship of some kind gave a short blast of its horn, then the resounding quiet. Across the court Boyd swayed back and forth, waiting. The widow was quiet. She slept on the floor. Gerry served a wobbly thing that caught Boyd off-guard and so he missed.
The rest of the tiebreak was a blur. Then Boyd was shaking his hand. “Not fair,” he said good-naturedly. “I’m the one who wins with junk.” Boyd packed up quickly. “Got to get home and get the wife to ice my back.” He left.
She was still there. “You won,” she said. A faint smile. “Fucker.”
He sat down. The chair was icy. “Fuck you too.”
Silence. The lights clicked off on Court 6. She said quietly, “Fuck you and the horse you came in on.”
He said, “Such a fucking horse.”
More silence. Not looking at him, she nodded and got up. “Thanks again. I have to go home. Don’t want my goddaughter to call the search team.” She started down the little grassy hill and then turned back. “Have a good life.” Then she was gone.
There he was on a cold chair. Her scent was more like a memory. He didn’t have anyone to talk to, which was OK—he had nothing to say. No stories to instruct someone on how to exist. His surging blood was slowing, and soon the sweat in his T-shirt would cool, encasing him in cold fabric. He needed a hot shower. He needed to change something but didn’t know what. His life. Everything. How did he get so far in the hole so fast? He didn’t move.
Into his mind came a story. A month after his fall at the construction site, he was on the roof again. The foreman had told him that afternoon that he had a good work ethic and would take him off probation. He had the job. There was sun on the new shingles. The smell of wood. The other guys were packing their trucks.
He stepped out on the spine of the roof. He was a tightrope walker two-and-a-half stories up into the sky. At the far edge he bent and grasped the gable with his hands, then lifted his legs into a handstand. The world went upside down. The neighbor’s roof was wrong, strange. Exquisite terror swept through him. He corrected his balance with his legs. Corrected again. His arms shook, his strength ebbing. He stayed one beat longer, holding on, letting his terror ripple down into the house they were building. Then, finally, he lowered his legs and made sure he had traction before setting his weight down.
No one had seen. He wished someone had seen. He couldn’t tell the others—they were family men and risks were stupid. Soon he forgot.
Gerry realized that the traffic sounds had died, and he could hear the waves in the bay, a restless sound that didn’t comfort. Have a good life, a throwaway line. After all these years he still had no one to tell the story. He should have remembered and told Kristy. She was a good listener. She would have tilted her head and said, “Oh, I wonder why you did that.” He wondered alone. And as he wondered, his heart slowed. The cold dew felt somehow nourishing. It would
help grow new courts, new nets, all new in the morning. He’d have to find someone to tell his story. Or not. That handstand was his. His slice of sweet, holy terror. Unseen. His life.
Pamela Gullard is the author of the story collection Breathe at Every Other Stroke. New work has appeared in Arts & Letters, The North American Review, TriQuarterly and Sou’wester. She lives in Menlo Park, CA