¥ Summer 2011 ¥
He was trying to explain to her how he’d gotten to be where he was. The condition he was in. His state of mind, the state of his bank account. His heart, his soul, whatever. They were in the Orangery at Windermere, Aisha newly naked beside him, the salt air coming in through the window, and this was the sort of moment when he somehow felt compelled to tell all.
What had gotten under his skin, he found himself saying, was the way the guy kept bringing up the Tennis Life article. “Lacks the killer instinct to break into the top fifty,” he kept saying, drunk, obnoxious, smiling that smile that men smile to show they’re just kidding even when they’re not just kidding. Who was this bozo anyway?
At which Aisha leaned over and kissed him like “poor you,” her dreadlocks spilling across her lovely shoulders.
This had been last August, he told her, a real low point in his life. His knee was shot and he’d just retired…or was on the verge of retiring…or wasn’t sure whether he was retiring or not-but his right knee was messed up, his life was messed up, his ranking had dropped below two hundred for the first time in eight years, and the only options were to drift back down into the Challengers circuit, or pack it in and try to land a college coaching job, or failing that a gig at some luxury resort instructing Fortune 500 types on how to hit a slice backhand.
“Sandy Alison,” he imitated the guy, the bozo, the guy with the motorcycle last August. “Out of Duke, a great shotmaker but lacks the killer instinct to break into the top fifty.”
Thing was, that past August was the second year running he hadn’t qualified for the US Open. It had been the beginning of the end. And even if he had qualified, he wouldn’t have been able to play—his knee again—so he’d come to Newport to the Hall of Fame Champions Cup as a hitting partner for Todd Martin. (A tagalong, a hanger-on: was that his future?) His money was beginning to run out and he knew he had to make a decision, and soon, but in Newport a little of the old life beckoned, and after the semifinals he’d gone to the Champions Ball with the idea of catching on with some of the local wealth (this was Newport, he didn’t have to remind Aisha), but the evening had degenerated from the waltz to the bossa nova to the Watusi until the surviving couple dozen partiers—the Champions had left a long time ago—had gone off barhopping down along Thames Street and ended up at this …this…he couldn’t even remember where they’d ended up but the bozo, the guy with the antique motorcycle, just wouldn’t let up.
What he didn’t tell her was how that phrase—“lacks the killer instinct”—had eaten at him for nearly a decade. It came from a year-end issue of Tennis Life, a Future-of-American-Tennis sort of thing about the new crop of guys making the transition to the pro tour. This was back in 2002 and he had just made it, as a freshman no less, to the NCAA Semifinals, and some of the things they had to say were cool. They called him “the Southern Gentleman,” said he had an artistry on the court, was well liked in the players’ lounge. But that last summing up had seemed to doom him to the hinterland of Almost But Not Quite, which, if he was completely honest, was exactly where he’d spent the decade of his pro career. He had in fact cracked the top fifty (Sandy Alison, 2006, #47 in the world, you can look it up), had made it once to the third round of Wimbledon, twice to the second round of the US Open, had a dozen Challengers titles to his name, the courts back at his Charleston high school named in his honor, but somehow none of that was good enough. He was, somehow, in spite of all that, a loser. It didn’t matter that in 2006 he could beat all but forty-six freaking players in the whole freaking world. It didn’t matter that whatever town he drove into he could beat whoever their best tennis player was, could beat him left-handed for Pete’s sake (and he could too; he used to mess around on the court playing left-handed when he should have been doing drills)—none of that mattered. He was—even while people wanted to know him, wanted to hang out with him because he was a professional athlete—somehow he was still a loser. He hadn’t been a winner—he lacked the killer instinct—and therefore he had to be a loser. That was how it felt anyway, although he didn’t ever tell that to anyone. Certainly not to the woman lying beside him.
So yeah, the motorcycle. Maybe all it was, was just that the guy was a bad drunk. Maybe he was just a bad drunk and it just happened to have been Sandy who had gotten in his way. But the guy started calling shit at him across the room the Casino party had settled into, the women in their cocktail dresses and the men in their dinner jackets with their ties undone. It got bad enough that everyone started getting embarrassed for Sandy. The women wouldn’t look at him, or they’d shush the bozo—there was this one British woman there who kept saying, “Oh, what rot!”—and the men had that look men get when one of them is being singled out. The challenge, the appraisal, the are-you-just-gonna-sit-there-and-take-it? look.
Earlier in the evening the motorcycle guy had been friendly enough. Sandy had stood with him on the sidewalk in front of one of the bars down on lower Thames Street and they’d talked tennis. The guy knew who Sandy was, knew his career, had himself played for Williams twenty years earlier, and Sandy had complimented him on his motorcycle parked alongside the curb—an antique red Indian Chief with those deeply valanced fenders and the whole Steve McQueen look—complimented him not because he cared about motorcycles but just because he was a nice guy, right? Hadn’t Tennis Life said so?
Anyway, inside the bar it got to a point where Sandy had to answer the guy, had to say something, anything, so he called back over the tables and chairs that separated them: “Dude, I could beat you left-handed!”
“Dude?” the guy had said. “Dude?” Like it was the sorriest-ass thing anyone could say. And he had this way of spreading his hands about himself, gesturing toward the others as if to include them on his side, as if it was the lot of them who’d paid a thousand dollars a plate against the tennis pro who lacked the killer instinct. There was no way Sandy could beat him left-handed, the guy said, and when Sandy challenged him again, the guy had said okay, he was on. One set. Sandy left-handed. Him right-handed. He’d put up the Indian.
“No Indian,” Sandy had said. “We just play.”
The bozo went “pfft,” like what kind of loser was this? Of course they had to play for something. That’s how it was done. “The Indian,” he said again. “You were drooling over it an hour ago, pretty boy. It’s yours if you can beat me.”
He had tried to keep his own nonchalance, but the faces on either side of him began to swim at the edge of his vision: the low-cut necklines, the pearls and spaghetti straps, the men with expressions of wanting to look away.
“Lacks the killer instinct,” the guy said and gazed around the room with an easy gesture like voilà.
“Okay,” Sandy had said. He tried to make his own easy gesture, like okay if that’s what you want.
The guy turned back to him. “Okay.” He mimicked Sandy’s accent, making the word sound like it had three syllables, and then after a few strategic moments had passed: “And what’re you putting up, champ?”
And that, he told Aisha, was when he got it. When he understood. The motorcycle was appraised at 30K, the guy was saying. What was Sandy going to put up against it? He had walked right into it, he told her. It hadn’t been about tennis. It wasn’t even the drunk-former-college-player-who-thought-he-could’ve-been-a-pro thing. He’d seen that before. No, this was about something else.
“Dude?” the guy mocked.
He could feel the heat coming into his face. The whole room began to swim. He had enough presence of mind not to smile, but that was about it.
“What rot!” the Brit tossed out again.
“Thirty K,” the guy repeated, “give or take a couple. I’ll accept stocks, bonds, traveler’s checks”—he was having fun now—“a new bow thruster for my thirty-meter—”
And that was when Margo had saved his ass, he told Aisha, who propped herself up on her elbow like this was the part she wanted to hear about. This classy-looking woman who stood up and ring-tossed a necklace down on the table in front of the bozo. Sandy had noticed her earlier in the evening, tight black dress, super-short hair, maybe available if it weren’t for this girl with—what? cerebral palsy?—this girl who was always at her side. Who was even now staring at him with her pale, strained face. The guy looked at the necklace like it was a grenade that had just landed in front of him. The classy-looking woman had turned to Sandy with that hard face he would come to know.
“You can beat this asshole, right?” she said.
So there had been no other way out. He had stood up and the whole room had broken into a buzz. They had loaded into their cars (the Brit lady on the back of the Indian, it turned out), and because there was no way to get into the Casino now, had driven out to the high school, where there were lighted courts, but of course it was two in the morning and the lights were on a timer so they had to maneuver some of the cars alongside until their headlights lit the courts. Half a dozen racquets came out of various trunks. Someone popped a new can of balls.
And what could he say? He had destroyed the guy. There was a big difference between a drunk forty-year-old former Division III player and a drunk thirty-one-year-old international touring pro even if the international touring pro was playing left-handed in his stocking feet and lacked the killer instinct, you tuxedoed douche-bag. The guy had a big first serve that was a bitch returning left-handed, but it became clear after the first couple of games that everything else he had was strictly 4.5. And once the freaky nerves were gone, Sandy had started totally messing with the guy, moving him back and forth along the baseline and then drop-shotting him, moon-balling him just for fun, spinning the ball, cutting it, slicing it like a Harlem Globetrotter. He even pulled out this hilarious serve he’d learned from Jimmy Arias. He’d toss the ball up and swing at it like he normally would do, only he’d miss it—a total whiff!—and then all in the same motion, just when the ball was about to touch the ground, underhand it right into the service box. Only he had to do this right-handed, but by then nobody cared, not even the bozo douche-bag who Sandy had to admit had carried the whole thing off better than he would have expected. When it was over, they met at the net. The guy was holding out the key to the Indian, telling him something about how it had a suicide shifter so he’d have to watch out. The Brit lady was saying she’d always hated the bloody thing anyway.
“Forget it,” Sandy had said. “You’re drunk. I’m drunk. Everybody’s drunk. Forget it.”
But as soon as he’d said it he knew it was the wrong thing. Margo took the key and threw it into his chest, gave him a look like don’t be a loser. (Cripes, he said to Aisha—he said things like that: cripes, geez, smart aleck—it was part of being a Southern Gentleman—cripes, it was like he couldn’t get anything right that night!) He’d at least had the good sense to wait until people were out of earshot before he admitted he didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. Margo had rolled her eyes, held out her hand for the key, and Sandy had followed her home in her SUV with the thin, intense-looking girl sitting silently beside him in the passenger seat.
And that’s how he’d met Margo. That’s how it’d all started, if “all” was a word he could use for an affair that was more off than it was on. Or rather, an affair that was only on when Margo said it was-a phone call, a meeting place, and then nothing for days. Or months, as it turned out once he’d left Newport that past September. Not a text or a phone call or an e-mail the whole winter while he was down south at Saddlebrook.