September 23rd: Humour!
Love-Love
, by Burt Baum

“Sunny, temperature in the seventies, a typical day in Southern California,” the voice on the car radio says. I drive through the gate, pass the “Silver Meadows” sign and park near the tennis clubhouse. I grab my tennis racket and bag, and head to the main tennis court where I am to play Richard (don’t dare call me Dick) Hobart for the Silver Meadows Single-Singles Men’s League Championship. As the name says, all the players in this league are single—mainly widows and widowers (like me)—and live in the community.

As I walk and think about the match, I realize that my major worry is not Richard, but Viola Ringwald, the Single-Singles Women’s Champion and club president. If I win today I will be expected to escort her to the annual tennis dinner-dance, one of the top events in Silver Meadows. I would really like to beat that son of a bitch, Richard, but just the thought of having to spend an evening with Viola is enough to give me palpitations—I had by-pass four years ago. I don’t know Viola that well, but the few times she was my partner in doubles she kept telling me where to play and correcting my every move. And now that she’s club president, she’s acting the same way.

By the time I reach the court I’ve decided on a plan: as much as I hate to, I’m going to lose to Sir Richard. Let him have Viola. I’ve had enough supervision in my life, and I don’t need her fancy-shmancy ways.

Richard arrives at the court the same time I do. He is all in white. I am wearing khaki shorts and a blue, beat-up, Brooklyn Dodger T-shirt that my grandson gave me. (I never recognized that the Dodgers, like me, moved to California.)

“Nice day, Maynard,” Richard says.

“Yeah,” I say.

Richard is a man of few words. Rumor has it that he used to work for the CIA. He supposedly speaks six languages, but doesn’t talk much in any of them. He uses my formal name because he knows it annoys me—I prefer “Bud.” Imagine naming a kid Maynard.

He takes out three balls from a special pressurized storage container that he has been carrying around with him for the last six years—ever since we started playing. “These are good, they’ve only been used once.”

I know that Richard’s magic can does not work and the balls are dead. He likes to play with them because they make his back-spin even more effective.

“Why don’t we play with these?” I say, showing him a new can of Dunlop’s. Actually, today I want to play with his balls, but I don’t want him to think that anything is unusual. I’m amazed when he agrees to play with the Dunlop’s.

We begin to warm up when I look up and see Viola coming toward us. She is wearing a blue and white tennis outfit, definitely designer label, and a wide-brimmed hat, tilted at such an angle so as not to hide her blonde hair. Imagine a sixty-year-old with platinum blonde hair. I don’t think she was a real blonde even when she was younger. Who is she kidding?

Viola strides to the middle of the court, like some kind of queen. She is tall and thin and carries herself well and if it wasn’t for her hair, she could be queen material. Viola ignores the fact that Richard and I are hitting the ball to one another, and walks right up to the net.

“What a nice day,” she says. She and Sir Richard should open a weather bureau.

“Yeah,” I say. “They usually are in sunny California.” We stop hitting.

“Well, as president of the tennis club and chair of the annual dinner-dance I wanted to be here to congratulate you two as the finalists,” Viola says.

She speaks in this loud voice and smiles as if she is telling herself a private joke. “Have a good game and may the better man win.” With the last few words she stares directly at me.

All during her little talk, I am standing with my hands on my hips. Richard is scratching his gray crew cut and looking up into the sky. Maybe he’s working on tomorrow’s forecast.

“That’s a nice speech,” I say, “but you don’t have to make such a big deal. It’s just a tennis match, not a stepping stone to the U.S. Open.”

“That’s just like you, Maynard. You can’t even accept a simple, gracious gesture without complaining—”

“Complaining? Who’s complaining? I’m simply stating facts. Ever since you took over, things have gotten fancier and more complicated. In the old days we used to have a dinner every year, but it was informal, we’d meet in a restaurant and the winners would get paper certificates. Now we’re meeting in the main clubhouse with everything catered and a band and silver cups for the winners, and—”

“We’re still small time, Maynard,” Viola says. She still has that half smile and talks to me like a second grade teacher reprimanding a kid who acted up during a fire drill. She and I are close, separated only by the net. My face is pink but not from the sun.

“Look at the golf league and what they’re doing,” she says.

“I’m not a golfer. Let those guys in the fancy shirts and pants do whatever they want.” I know that Richard is a golfer, and wears Tommy Hilfiger clothes. He hears this last remark, stops his sky-watching and walks over to the net.

“Thanks for coming, Viola,” he says. She smiles at Richard and walks away.

“You chicken-shit, son of a bitch,” I say to Richard when Viola is out of earshot. “You know you don’t like what she’s doing any more than I do.”

Richard shrugs his shoulders. “Let’s just play.”

Viola takes a seat in the small, empty grandstand. (This contest certainly isn’t going to make Eyewitness News at Eleven.) I don’t think that either of us expected her to show up, and we certainly didn’t expect her to stay.

The winner needs to take two out of three sets. My strategy is simple. I will play just bad enough to lose, but not make it obvious. After all Viola is watching. Although Richard is seventy-two and four years older than me, he usually beats me. He has played all his life, starting in the private schools, but I just started to play seriously when I hit fifty. That’s not to say that I can’t beat him. When I’m hot I can. But I got this feeling that today, in front of Ms. Ringwald, his skill, experience and patience will do me in.

This is a beautiful day to lose a tennis match.

The first set goes as planned. Richard hits his spin serve to my backhand and I hit the ball out. (I got an erratic backhand, everybody knows it.) I charge the net and he lobs the ball over my head. I stay back and he makes a wicked drop shot—I don’t know how that S.O.B. does it—and the ball dies at my feet. In long rallies, where we hit the ball back and forth, he hits the ball from side to side until I get tired and make an error. I lose the set, six games to two, without even having to pretend. Throughout the set we say nothing. Viola sits with that same smile on her face, her legs crossed and her upper foot going up and down, watching our every move. At the end of the set my shirt is wet, but Richard looks like he just walked out of an air-conditioned movie.

During the second set things begin to change. Richard starts hitting the ball where I can reach it easier. When I miss getting my last two serves in and double fault (strictly intentional) to lose my service game, he double faults to lose the next game when he serves. I also notice that he’s moving slower. Maybe he’s starting to feel a little shaky—it happens all the time—now that he realizes he’s close to winning. It’s more likely, though, knowing him, that he wants to lose the second set to prolong my misery and then go on to destroy me in the last set.

With the games tied at five-five, Richard double faults at thirty-forty, and loses the game. He doesn’t say anything, but looks at the strings on his racket like he’s Rafael Nadal. I serve at six games to five, and after a few long rallies, I’m ahead by one point—another point and I win the game and the set. I serve an easy “moon ball” to Richard, but he hits it into the net, the ball just missing the top.

“Oh, good serve,” he says, as if surprised.

We are now tied, one set apiece.

Whoever wins the next set wins Viola.

I’m sure Richard is going to turn it on, but he keeps playing like he did in the second set—still not sweating. It dawns on me that the bastard doesn’t want to win either.

Neither one of us wants Viola. Richard may not be a very likable guy, but he’s no dummy.

Meanwhile Viola watches us, drinking a can of juice from the machine. She had the club take out the old Coke machine a few months ago so that everyone should only have healthy drinks. She still has that same smile—it must be one long joke she’s telling herself—but she is sitting closer and closer to the edge of her seat.

Richard makes easy serves and I swing hard, throwing a couple of grunts in for good measure, trying to hit the balls out of bounds. Richard, however, calls the ones that are close “in”—I know that he’s not doing it because he’s such a gentleman—and keeps the ball in play. He loses game one.

I realize that he is better than I am at both winning and losing. My stomach feels like it is in an elevator falling rapidly from the eightieth floor to the first.

I double fault three times in the second game, which is not unusual for me, and lose.

And that’s the pattern during the whole set. Each of us tries to play poor enough to lose, but not so poorly that Viola becomes suspicious. Richard serves at six-six. I try hard to fail but he continues to out-fumble me and loses. To my annoyance, I am ahead. Richard only needs to lose the next game and I take the match.

It’s my serve. Viola is at the very edge of her seat, and she’s not smiling. I feel her staring at me and I realize that I have to look like I’m trying to win. Each of us is aware that Viola is hanging on our every move. Every point is a long rally, and we tie several times. I try to hit the ball long, but Richard jumps, blocks it, and sends it right back to me. Before I know it, the ball hits my racket and spins back over the net away from Richard. I’m now ahead by one point, forty-thirty. I raise my racket, pretending that I’m ready for the kill, but if I don’t watch out and I somehow win the next point, I will win the match. I feel Viola’s eyes burning into my back.

I serve Richard a very slow, high bouncing ball that he will not be able to intentionally hit into the net. He lets out a tremendous grunt that they could hear back in Brooklyn, swings with his whole body and—misses the ball. I mean he misses it completely, like it was traveling at one hundred ten and not actually ten miles an hour.

I stand there like I just saw Moses split the Red Sea. Richard rushes up to me, smiling—he doesn’t smile too often, either. “Good luck, you’ll need it.” He pumps my hand a few times and disappears.

I turn to see Viola moving toward me very slowly, with her shoulders slumped. Her lips are pressed together. “Congratulations, you louse,” she says in a low voice. I must admit that Viola, like most royalty, is usually polite and this is the strongest language I have ever heard her use. “It looks like neither of you two gentlemen wanted to win.” The way she says “gentlemen” feels like someone dropped a bag of ice down the back of my shirt.

“I, uh, think we were a little off today.” What else could I say?

“Look, if you or Richard didn’t want to go to the dance with me, why didn’t you just tell me? It’s all right, I’m a big girl.”

I’m not sure, but I think I hear a slight crack in Viola’s voice.

“Look, Viola, you’re reading a lot into this. So we played crap—uh, poorly. This doesn’t have anything to do with you. You know that Richard always wants to beat me as much as I want to beat him. No matter the circumstances.”

“Well, you two certainly fooled me. It’s O.K., Maynard, you don’t have to take me, I can go with someone else.” Viola turns and walks away like she’s just broken off relations with Iran.

I don’t sleep well that night. To tell you the truth, I don’t sleep well most nights, but this night is extra bad. I’m not a mean person, and I really didn’t expect Viola to react the way she did. I know that it’s all nonsense. Millions of people are starving in Africa and I’m worried about a lousy dinner. The thing is, I already paid the twenty-five dollars and I might as well get my trophy. But there’s no way I can go without Viola. Everybody knows what the set-up is: the two singles winners are like the king and queen of the ball. But there are two problems: one is that I probably will have to call Viola and apologize, and the second is that I will have to be with her most of the evening. It’ll be more like the queen and her footman. As long as I do whatever she wants me to do everything will be fine.

She’ll probably want to dance. She’s a good dancer. I don’t like to dance. I am an original Arthur Murray drop-out. She’ll keep talking about herself, her trips, her fancy and important friends, her possessions. Sooner or later she’ll start talking about her last husband. Poor guy—dying was his only way out. When I’m not listening to her she’ll probably expect me to keep filling her glass with champagne—what else do royalty drink? Fat chance.

I spend the night twisting, turning and tossing. I get up at four feeling like a pretzel. I turn on cable and watch a movie. It’s about Queen Victoria and her horseman. Now this queen is a tough broad, but the horseman is no pushover. The Queen likes his spunk and by the middle of the movie she softens up. At the end he grabs and kisses her. I think of Viola. I really don’t know her that well. Maybe she isn’t so bad.

When the movie ends I doze and, before I know it, it’s nine o’clock. I decide that I will call Viola. She is an early-riser and has probably had her daily four-mile walk already. I dial her number, get her machine.

“This is Viola Ringwald. I cannot come to the phone at this moment, but if you will be so kind as to leave a message, I will answer you promptly. Thank you.”

I want to speak to her directly so I don’t leave a message. But what if she has caller ID and doesn’t want to talk to me? I go out on my rounds distributing food for Meals on Wheels. When I get back I call again, but still no answer, so I decide to go down to the courts to see if she is there .The dance is two days away.

She has just finished playing doubles with some of her lady friends and is walking with them toward the parking lot, carrying two rackets. She always has two rackets. She looks like she’s thinking of affairs of state.

“Hi, Viola,” I say.

“Oh…hello, Maynard,” she says. It’s a start.

“Truce,” I say. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” There is a long pause—the Spanish-American War took less time.

“Well, O.K.” She tells her friends to keep going and she’ll catch up with them. “What do you want?”

“About the tennis dinner.”

“Yes?” Her steely, gray eyes look at me like I’m a murderer asking for a royal pardon.

“I hope we can discuss this like mature adults,” I say, using a phrase right out of Ann Landers.

“You and Richard certainly didn’t behave like adults.”

I can feel the rope around my neck. “Look, let bygones be bygones. I would like to go to the dinner and since I won the match I would be happy to go with you.” I think it’s been forty years since I asked anyone for a date.

“What do you take me for—a fool? Neither you nor Richard seemed to be particularly eager to go with me the other day.”

“That was then and this is now. My main hang-up had nothing to do with you. It’s just that I…uh…I…don’t dance. And you owe it to the tradition of the club to go with me.”

Her eyes soften like she’s starting to tell herself another joke. Maybe I’ll just get life imprisonment.

“I don’t buy that dance business, but you are right about the club tradition,” Viola says. She looks at me for a long while, then sighs. “O.K., Maynard, particularly since the time is short I’ll go with you, but just to perpetuate the custom.” She walks away, then turns and says over her shoulder, “Wear a tie and pick me up at four-thirty, sharp. I am the president. I have to get there early.”

The evening of the dinner I am at Viola’s condo at four-fifteen, wearing the dark suit, that I last wore to Joe McMillan’s funeral a year ago, instead of my sport jacket. Viola opens the door and I immediately smell the same lilac perfume that my wife used to wear. She has on a black gown with pearls and I have to admit, she looks regal.

I give her a box of See’s chocolates to put her in a good mood. It cost me almost as much as the dinner. Viola takes the box, looks at it a minute and puts it down like it’s radioactive. “Well thank you, Maynard, that was very thoughtful of you. But I don’t eat chocolate—it’s really not good for you.”

“You know you’re the first woman I’ve met who doesn’t like chocolate. One or two pieces aren’t going to kill you. Why not relax and just enjoy it? But if you don’t want it, I’ll take it back. I’ll eat it.”

I reach for the box. Viola grabs it, and puts it in a drawer, slamming it shut.

“I thought you don’t like it,”I say.

“Oh, I do like it, but I don’t normally eat it. I have uses for it, though.

“What do you do—munch on it secretly at night?”

“I have better things to do secretly at night. Let’s go.”

I feel the temperature drop. The royal temperament is upset.

We get in the car and drive. You can hear pins dropping all around. After a few minutes, Viola’s face thaws.

“Nice evening,” she says. Again with the weather report.

“Yeah,” I say.

More silence.

Finally I say: “You know, Viola, I’m a better tennis player than dancer and I’m not really that great at tennis. Do you mind if we only dance the first dance?”

She sits up and tightens her wrap around her. “That shouldn’t be a problem.I’ll be occupied most of the evening and I’m sure that I can find other men who’ll be happy to dance with me.”

We arrive at the main clubhouse which is decorated very nicely for the event. Blue balloons and yellow tennis balls hang from the ceiling and there are paper cut-outs of tennis rackets on the wall. Every table has fresh flowers. Viola is all quiet smiles. This is her show and she is in control. Before we sit down there is champagne and appetizers, and everyone is in a good mood. It turns out Viola doesn’t drink champagne. It gives her a headache.

I sit at the head table next to Viola with the other officers and the players getting the silver cups, which are placed in front of us. Viola is so busy talking to people and telling everybody what to do that she leaves me pretty much alone. For dinner, I have the roast beef which I don’t get to eat very much any more because of my cholesterol. “This is delicious,” I say to Viola, who is eating salmon.

“I’m glad there’s something you like,” she says.

“There are a lot of things I like. I like chocolate and I certainly like my grandchildren.”

She smiles. “In that case, I want to show you something.” She takes out some pictures from her purse. “These are my grandchildren. This is Jocelyn, that’s Alison and this one is Brady.”

“Oh, they’re cute,” I say.

“Yes, they’re a real joy. They’re really Sam’s grandchildren, but his first wife died before they were born, so they call me grandma. I never could have children, but now I have grandchildren. That’s a lasting gift from Sam—” All of a sudden the lights dim. “Oh, we need to present the awards,” Viola says and jumps from her seat. She is now in the spotlight—a beaming queen.

“As the president of the Silver Meadows Tennis Club, I want to welcome all of you tonight. We now want to recognize the champions from the past season. First the winner of the Men’s Single-Singles Cup. I saw the final match and let me tell you it was a dilly. Both men fought hard, but the winner is Bud Martin. Bud—”

Everyone, even Richard in his dinner jacket, is on their feet cheering.I also notice that Viola called me Bud. Maybe she’s feeling friendlier towards me. Then the biggest surprise of all:Viola kisses me. I mean it was a real kiss—not one of those pecks—and she didn’t have any champagne.

After the awards, the music starts and Viola and I dance. She feels nice in my arms. She’s such a good dancer that she’s able to avoid my two left feet, and I only bang into two other dancers on the floor.

“Viola, tell me something. Did you kiss the other winners the way you kissed me?”

“No, just you. I figured it might curb your feistyness.”

“In that case, I’ll keep being feisty.”

“You might do better showing some warmth.”

With that, I kiss her cheek—my lips just brushing against her skin.

“That’s the idea,” she whispers.

The rest of the time she dances with other guys and I shmooze with my friends. But I keep smelling her perfume, remembering the feel of her lips.

When they serve dessert at the end of the evening, we find out we both like strawberries. After some discussion about where to buy the best berries, Viola says: “Well, what do you think about tonight and the dinner-dance?”

“It was a great affair, you did a good job. You worked hard, but—”

“But what?”

I take a deep breath. “There has to be more to life than playing tennis and having a good time.”

“What do you mean?”

“We can work out and play tennis from morning ’til night, but we’re still not going to live forever. We should think about the world we’ll leave behind…you like children, right?”

“Yes.”

“Wouldn’t it have been even better if we used the dance to raise money for some charity for poor or sick kids? That would really put us one up on those golf guys.”

Viola’s face freezes. Her mouth hangs wide open then widens into a big grin. She puts her arms around me and gives me another kiss—this one longer than the one before.

“That’s a great idea. We can start planning right away. You’ll be on the committee, right?”

How can I refuse now? “Why, sure, “I say, like I’m really anxious to do it. What am I getting myself into?

She kisses me again, but this time I grab her and really kiss her just like the horseman in the movie. Her softness, her lips, her scent make me dizzy.

Her eyes twinkle.

“I have a suggestion,” she says in a soft voice. “Let’s go back to my condo. We can discuss your idea further and have strawberries with your chocolate.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I say.

We leave the dance holding hands. I feel fifty years younger—a teenager taking the prom queen home.

*

Burt Baum is a septuagenarian and still young enough to write about affairs even if (as he says) it has become increasingly difficult for him to have them! He retired from his work as an industrial chemist about 15 years ago and has been writing (mainly short stories) ever since. His work has been widely published both in print and online.


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