"With a title like that, there better be some substance to this tale, is what I'm thinkin'. "
Well, there is popcorn.
"And there better be a tie-in for all the disparate elements suspended in the title like dangling participle pinatas waiting to be bashed with a critcal baseball bat or a disapproving broomstick handle."
Well, they are all part of the same story, just let me get to that.
"And no drug stories. I hate fuzzy "I was so f---ed up, I fell over and hit my head on my Mom's boyfriend's Camaro's new spin off lugs...""
Nope. Only popcorn and some topspin. Here. Let me tell you what happened. The long version.--
My transmission blew up on highway 5 just north of Redding, and it made me hit my Pops in the nuts with a 140 mile an hour tennis serve, which doubled him over, and made me proud.
Alright. That was the short version. Let me try again.
I had just finished building a house on the foothills of Mt. Ashland, and the ski season had just ended. It was time to pack the skis away and head back down into California. I was driving a high mileage Nissan 4wd king cab that was getting up there in age, and I wanted to do something nice to it for the trip. I decided to take it to an in and out oil and lube shop and get it all greased up--which I did (and which I believe my father should hold the most responsible for the fuzzy yellow shot he took to his egg basket), and I remember the kid who came out and told me he couldn't get to the tranfer case fill plug because the catalytic was in the way (this kid, especially, should be on Pops' high hate list for separating his jewels so rudely and violently.)
"Don't worry about it," I said. "The oil in the transfer case should be fine."
The kid nodded and went back to work on my truck.
There is a mathematical statement somewheres, I am sure, in which almost everyone would agree. It states that, if you remove a fluid from a container or compartment and don't replace it, it will no longer be there. This is true of oils in tranfer cases, as well as beer in the fridge. We learn this early on as functioning men, which is why we usually have oil in our transfer cases and beer in the fridge. This "kid" (testicle slayer, my father probably calls him) had not learned this rule and had emptied my transefer case of its oil, then came and told me he couldn't refill it because the catalytic converter was in his way. I assumed he knew the "general" rule of missing fluids and had not yet removed the oil.
Another rule for the ladies to remember (and this "kid") , is that machines don't run for very long without oil. In my case, about 90 miles. One minute, I am cruising along at a whopping 63mph (old, tired truck) and the next minute, the cab is full of smoke, the noise level has risen several decibals, and the power from the engine is no longer reaching the wheels. All this happenstance is happening haphazardly and I'm not happy about it. I pulled over, waited one, two, three hours for someone not afraid of me to pull over and call a tow truck. That turned out to be a cop.
When the tow truck driver got me loaded, he motioned to the cab and I got in, and he drove me the final hour to Redding (it's now dark outside) and the whole time he's telling me morbid tales of missing and found body parts he's witnessed in his years as a tow truck driver-- hovering, like a vulture, I thought-- around interstate 5. Now I've hitchihiked enough to know how some of these conversations go. Usually, a gay man will start telling you about a "friend", it will turn into a more explicite conversation about this "friend", and then he'll test you with details about encounters he's had with "new friends" and judge your responses. Usually, you try to be polite at first, and then-- I've learned-- you be blunt and set a boundary and either get let out or discover other interests like the instant replay debate or whether Dennis Rodman really was the oddest ingredient for Championship success, or who else would qualify?
"Her teeth were so full of gold, they twinkled in the moonlight, like stars, across the asphalt (he was poetically morbid, did I tell you that?)
"His head was gone, his hands were gone, and he had no peepee. He was like a manniquin in one of them expensive department stores. Ever been to one of them?"
"I couldn't stop staring at this boob. It was just quivering on the ground there. Like a big bowl of jello with a cartoon eye. It was half a rack, I'm tellin' you true..."
Now with the gay men, you knew what they were getting at. Words led to deeds, led to other deeds and that was why they pulled over and hoped. But with this guy? I couldn't figure where all this morbidity was heading. We were still on 5 and would be until the first Redding exit. Then we would be under street lights for three hundred yards to a Motel 6, where I was planning on staying until the morning, a monday. I had forty pounds on him and by the way he wheezed, a few more rounds, for sure. I never lost my alertness-- not with body parts flyin' every which way-- but I started to enjoy the surreal quality of the moment and just let it flow.
"Ever see a leg so twisted up the toe is sticking in the ear? Like a Gumby doll only the guy's got shoes on..."
"That's right. Five of em floatin' right down over there." He pointed to a lake that was fed from a creek that ran under the freeway. "I got me a rope and put a hook on the end of it and snagged them bodies and pulled 'em in. The sherriff cussed at me 'cause the hook was one of them big sumbitches I use for grappling cars. I put one right through the skull of one of the ladies..."
Motel 6, please. Hurry.
Now my father would not recoil at the very thought of Wilson Tournament Play number 4's if this tow truck driver had tried something funny or taken me to another motel along this stretch of road. But the driver dropped me off here, and he set my car down across the road at an AAMCO, because he knew both owners and recommended them with such enthusiasm and lack of morbidity that I just had to agree. I would sleep the night away. Tomorrow, I would walk across the street, get my truck fixed, pay lots of money, and then continue home. I would send the bill to the oil/lube specialist, and all would be back to the way it was supposed to be.
None of that happened.
Oh, I got to sleep alright. But it took me a few hours, even though I was ready for it. First, I walked into the office where two middle-thirties charming "ladies of my era" were laughing their selves to tears. My first reaction was to check the usual suspects. Zipper. Hair. Oddities hanging off face. I seemed good to go. They were in no condition to help me, though. It was like they were now told to stop laughing and couldn't. Two girls taking turns holding their breaths and then spilling out their insides, which were mirthful bubbles as hard to contain as a burp after a coke. I couldn't stand it.
"Now I've really got to hear it." I said "Come on. What's so funny?"
"The guy who just left. He's got a really big tool!"
"The other girl, now--"He needs a big room, 'cause he's got a really big tool!"
"A big tool?"
First girl-- "Yeah! A really big one. He said so!"
"And he needs room for it!"
I just stood there with an appropriate grin and dumbfounded look on my face.
"How big are your rooms? he said"
"We said, sir. Our rooms are all the same size."
"'Cause I've got a really big tool!"
"I beg your pardon? I said."
"I need a big room, 'cause I've got a really big tool!"
"We both just lost it!"
"I don't blame you!" I said.
And we three settled down after about then and then some, and I signed in and got a room, and one of the two girls asked me if I knew anything about cars, and I said a little, and while my poor truck sat lonely across four lanes of well lit road, I was tucked under a hood with a flashlight trying to identify a fuel filter, get it removed, blown out backwards, and then bypassed with instructions on what to tell the guy down at the shop when you take your car in in the morning.
"Noon." she said. "I don't get up until almost noon."
Now my father's nuts would have probably preffered that my transmission was one where repairs could have been made within a few hours. This was not to be. The owner of the shop was a smallish but athletic-looking guy in his mid fifties named Hal, and he was very kind and officious and forthcoming and honest and all those good business things, and he told me that my transmission had also gone because when the transfer case broke, the transmission fell out of the main bearing (simplified explanation) and now I needed a new used doo hicky (simpler still) which would be cheaper than new, but he'd have to make some calls and look around.
Fine. But what is there to do on the outskirts of Redding on a monday? Not much. Hal suggested I relax and watch a movie in his waiting room.
Which had a VCR collection as big as any roadside worm and tackle and beer and deli sandwhich place I'd ever been to. AND there was a comfortable leather chair that rocked like a movie theatre seat and an ottoman just like the seat in front of your movie theatre seat, only nobody there to shush you.
Cool. I'll watch a movie. I told Hal. "I'll watch a movie."
Hal said "Help yourself to whatever is in the library, there, and got back on the phone.
Now if I had been a big movie buff, my father would not fear fuzzy yellow balls the way he does today. I mean, Superman 3 would have left him standing five feet in from the baseline, cocky and confident, ready to slap one of his famous down the line returns that earned him the nickname "Down the Line Simpson" at his local racket club. I would have been caught flat-footed after a big-efforted serve, and the father and son ego battle would have never truly evened out. I would have remained the vanquished son, relegated to fighting off backhanded dink shots and powerful but flat forehands, held to accountability and chastised for my inability to surpass the aging father and rightfully take his place in the B league. I would have abandoned the racket much sooner than I did, and years and years of watching opponents standing dumbfounded and unmoved, their heads snapped back and their eyes blinking disbelievingly, and those famously uttered words-- "Nice serve" never to be spoken in my presence.
But I could take or leave a movie, depending on my mood.
What caught my eye was a series of tapes Hal had over on the side that looked like he did not mean to share them. They were Victor Braydon "How To" tapes, all about tennis. I started to look around the walls. Tennis plaques and tennis pictures, and an old wooden raquet hung up like a trophy.
"You play?" I asked Hal. He played.
His eyes lit up and he took his phone off the hook, and he told me about his game and how it was better than when he was twenty and there is a club just down the road and at lunch I could be his guest and those tapes are worth watching, sure. If it weren't for those tapes...
"May I watch one?"
"Sure! Backhand? Forehand? Serve? Gamesmanship? Volleying? Approaching the net? Doubles?" he read the list. I had choices to be sure.
My father's nutsack would have probably preferred that I chose what I really should have chosen-- Backhand. I had the worst backhand I have ever seen. I can't topspin the ball. I can't return from a backhand with any speed. I can't get my backhand to stop "floating" so I hit it several feet long quite often and way too often. All I can do is undercut it and backspin it which works as a surprise, but NOT if it is your only decent backhand shot. You might as well tell your opponent that you are going to leave the ball pleasantly close to the fore of his court, at a nice height for choosing which side to put the ball away. I needed a backhand the way Rodman needed a free throw shot. And I chose the "Serve".
I was given a remote and a rocking chair with an ottomon and a great "how to" video which turned out to have a segment in it that fascinated the crap out of me. The overhand topspin serve. The ball is struck across the topmost face and a spin is generated that curves the ball sharply downward, assuring that no matter how hard you hit it, it will "pull" itself toward the earth and land without faulting long, which was what always happened to me when I had really tried to let her rip before. I watched and watched, and rewound, and watched, and rewound, and watched.... Hal came over after awhile and asked me how I was enjoying myself.
"Great!" I said. All I need is a tub of popcorn and I'd be in heaven!"
Hal arrived-- I shit you not-- with a tub of microwaved popcorn he had had stashed and aging in his breakroom.
I licked my buttery fingers. I memorized every nuance of the overhead topspin serve. I rocked back and forth in the leather chair with the ottoman. My truck remained lifeless and nonfunctioning on a lift in the shop.
Heaven on earth, baby. Heaven on earth.
Eventually, Hal came up to me and asked if I wanted to go play. I said sure. He took me by Caddillac to a very posh tennis club and we got a court and we had a wonderful time thwacking and running, thwacking and shuffling, thwacking thwacking thwacking match point! I won, but just by barely. I won because Hal was over 55 and I wasn't. He was a better player than I-- except for my low forehand, which is legendary-- and he had figured out my backhand weakness sooner than most, causing me to have to "run around" more balls than I normally would, and to get mean and use the lines as a means to make him run and wear his old body out. It all barely worked.
After I won, I asked him what he knew of the overhead topspin serve.
"I could never do it." he said. My serve is too old school. Old dogs. All that. But you've got a nice slice serve that could be moved easily enough, I would suspect. Here, give it a try."
I tossed the ball and tried to remember what I had memorized. Short toss "you are not a statue", elbow high, shoulder back, bring the racket almost horizontal across the top of the ball.... The ball hit the rim of my racket and flibbered....
I did. This time, I spun one into the net. A few more tries, and I was "getting the feel of it". Not hard, but mechanically right. I was happy. Something good to know.
My father's ovaltwins are still rueing the day I tried it again while Hal gave me good observational pointers. Little did any of us realize the twinings of fate between my father's precious cargo and a guy name Hal-- whom I've never seen since. It's almost like Hal was put in place before I got here, ready to help me along on that journey from discontented son to paternal ball-crusher extraordinaire. If there is a God, he is one funny mover and shaker. You could not have asked for better under the circumstances, if you prayed till you bled.
I spent another night with the two giggling girls working two doors down. I got up in the morning, went out for sausage and eggs, wandered into the AAMCO and was relieved to find out that my part had come in, and that in an hour I could climb back on 5, and head on home. I said goodbye to Hal with a hug and a handshake, thanked him for a great game and the beer after, and fell into my driving mode, which is a somnambulistic gift I have for long distance "zoning out" driving, and got myself home.
Now if it weren't for the fact that I tattooed the letters WILSON across my father's gonads, this story would be about over. It would have been about a few interesting vignettes-- a morbid tow truck driver, a big tool, and some popcorn-- but my father's gonads are important to me for many reasons. And here's one--
My father started playing tennis when he was a teen. As a pilot, he played it everywhere he went. It was his way of getting out of hotels and meeting people. Of getting exercise. Of having fun. He was quite good at it, too. Although he never really learned the art of top spin-- he was old school-- he could keep the ball low to the net, hit his sidelines back and forth, and slap a return on weak serves that took you by surprise and was undefendable. I had never beaten him before, and I think, deep down, I knew it was because my serve was average and he could beat an average serve to death all day and as it pleased him. He was in his later fifties now (and this was ten years ago) and his feet weren't so quick anymore, and yet I couldn't get past the serve returns, the way he played to my weak backhand and avoided what I called "my monster" (my low forehand I hit like a ping pong ball, enormous topspin and speed and always to a deep corner.)
I needed to learn this serve.
In Occidental, California, there is a pair of courts in town that are for public use. They are seldom both in use at the same time, and they are walking distance to one of my favorite pizza restaurants/bars where I could reward myself with a Sierra Nevada on tap after a good game. I started to go there after work with a bucket of balls and practice. Overhand topspin. Elbow high. Shoulder back. Short toss. Days and days I whacked. I was slowly moving my slice serve overhand, and it was curling hard downward like it was supposed to. But where was the speed? I was hitting about 95 or so. The same as I could hit my slice. That wasn't going to cut it. I started thinking about the rest of the instructions on that tape. "Make your motion a whip, all the way through to your wrist and hand..."
A whip. I had been hitting the ball carefully for so long, I had lost any natural whip at the finish of my serve. It is the difference between a serve and a spectacle. A naturally arching action and a moment of blur. I tried to get it back.
Nope. Nope. Nope. Then it happened. Topspin, whipping action to the finish, and I hit a serve that I vaguely recognized as within this space and time. I looked around. No witnesses. Damn. A perfect serve, about 135 miles an hour. A Pete Sampras against McEnroe ACE, and it had come from my racket. I tried again. And again. And again. I had it!
I made the phone call.
"Hey Pops. Wanna get together for a game?"
"Down at the club?"
"No. There are good courts in Occidental. Meet me there after work tomorrow at six?"
Six came, and I popped the lid on a fresh set of Wilson's finest.
Wanna warm up some first? Sure. How's things? Good. You? Fine? Had the airbag go off in that new car I bought. Really? thwack thwack thwack....
Ready to play? Sure. Rally for serve? Sure. We rallied. I won the rally. I would serve first. Wanna hit a few practice serves first? Sure. I hit a few "second serve" slicing serves that gracefully curved into the court where they were supposed to and Pops thwacked 'em back. I'm ready. Me too. Ok. Let's do it.
I bounced one of the balls a few times to focus myself. I had the other ball in my front pocket. My father wiggled his big feet in place, shifted his weight back and forth and got ready for his return. He was standing five or six feet INSIDE the baseline. I noticed this. The condescension!!
"You better move back a few steps, I yelled across the net."
"Why? This is fine. Go on..." said my father.
"Alright," I said. But I was not alright. The nerve! The gaul! The cockiness! It really irked me. THIS IS FINE, he said! No, it is not fine. Six feet in is where you return the serve of your wife. It is where, when I was growing up, he always stood, slapping my mediocre offerings back at me with a level of confidence that suggested superiority and mastery and an obscene lack of respect! IT WAS NOT ALRIGHT!
At that moment, I made the decision to serve into him. A serve starting to his left, and slamming into his body where he would have trouble getting out of his own way and getting a raquet on it. I tossed, a good, short toss. I held my elbow high, pulled my shoulder back. Then came the whip. This was an angry whip, it started from the very soles of my being and surged up my calves and raced through my thighs and zipped through my torso and became a soundwave as it traveled out my arm and a light wave as it whipped through my wrist to the end of my raquet, which struck the ball on its topmost side which left the raquet like an angry thought and bulleted over the net by three feet and then the spin got a grip on some air and it curved sharply downward and leftward, starting out five or six feet to my father's left, his first and only reaction a slight lean in that direction, the fuzzy yellow Wilson sucking down air and pulling for the ground, curving leftward and downward, striking the ground at what seemed to me like 140 miles an hour, then hopping, angry, insanely out of control and out of my hands, directly, meanly, intently and irrefutably upward and leftward, zeroing in on my father's prideful jangles, hitting them with a force that would spread them and mock them, expand the eye sockets, gape the mouth, and pound out a quiet but telling "Ooooff!" out of my father's cocky mouth.
"Fifteen LOVE!" I call out. Love indeed. "Was that an ACE?"
Anyway, that's the way I remember it.