[short story first published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, XXXII:1, Fall 2014/Winter 2015]
In my estimation, Oz Feldman, may he rot in Hell, is a tall asshole and an over-ranked yutz. Can I beat him in this match? In my judgment, yes, should I be blessed to survive all three sets. The Lord, may he guard my end of the court, knows I’ve beaten every other boy at Chazak Tennis Camp. So, today it’s Oz versus Benji, the last survivors of the sweaty summer’s end tournament. Also the last day of Chazak for me or Oz, ever. The old men don’t allow you back after summer of 11th grade. Why? I don’t know.
People are watching from benches outside the fence, my father and the other camp coaches, all the camp boys. Even Mama, may God protect her, got the afternoon and is standing along the opposite fence in her TJ Maxx uniform. Under her headcovering she’s smiling at me. I can’t remember the last time I saw her doing that. She’s as far away in the park as she can be from Father, may a tree fall on him.
Oz looms over my opposite baseline, the destroying angel with a black kippah and colorless eyes. He has a one hundred-ten foot arm span and a one hundred-ten mile an hour serve. It’s true, because Father measured. As Oz and I warm up the ball the humidity makes wet mittens of my hands around the racket. I’m remembering what Father, may he choke on his tongue, instructs me on how to play Oz. The ugly giant’s all serve. Don’t allow this dull nephilim Oz to drag me at his advantage into set tiebreakers. Prove to Father I’m not afraid of a big-serving bully.
Some camp boy’s gray-bearded grandfather just climbed up into the seat of the chair-umpire.
“Maysters ready? Play!”
May God murder my enemy.
I didn’t wake up this morning with a plan to rely on God to win. I heard it raining and I waited awake with my eyes closed willing the rain to stop. Guess what? It worked. Then I listened for an alarm of rap music from my computer tablet. I had a plan to beat Oz. I repeated the plan in my head.
Estimate the course of his serve at first racket contact. Position myself far behind the baseline. Bounce on my sneakers a little. Shift my weight to the incoming ball side. Don’t try too much on his firsts, just block the ball back. Judge the weight of his over-ranked serve. Attempt a short slice to his backhand, low. Imagine hitting it to the serpents Oz has for shoelaces.
I toggled snooze on my tablet when rap came on and listened for my older sister turning off the shower. I told myself to stop plotting the match because too much would make me meshugah in the head. Instead I thought about Jazmine, the girl on the bus and her big pair of black-girl kishkas. I started to jerk off. For a moment, I thought of how Rabbi back in B’nei Mitzvah class used to say, “Zis iz a zin!” I stopped touching myself when I heard my sister, may she broil from rug burn, close her bedroom door. After I got up from bed I made sure the hallway was clear between my bedroom door and our bathroom for getting there only in my underwear. I skipped shaving because Oz Feldman has a narrow line of a beard that outlines his donkey face. It’s a line that makes him look like he’s passing for twenty. When I went back to my bedroom I put on tallit kattan, which is Hebrew for a Gentile undershirt with tzittzit tassels hanging off the corners. I picked a t-shirt to wear over with a design of Drake. Who is Drake? He’s the black-Jewish rapper and someone I hoped black girls on the bus would think under-ranked. I tied on the coolest sneakers there are from TJ Maxx and I sprayed on Midnight Rooster men’s body spray, which Mama agreed to get me for Hanukkah if I promised don’t wear it on Shabbat.
When I went to the kitchen I discovered that Mama left a skillet of blintzes stuffed with quark. What is quark? It’s kosher type cheese in which we Jews leave out any flavor. In my judgment, Mama should have been in the kitchen on the day of my championship match to make me something better, like she used to. I left all the cold blintzes on a plate for my sister, in case she’s just wicked enough to love the taste of dreck. Only then did I find Mama’s Post-it note left on our kitchen doorpost – May G_d help my boychik hit the yellow ball with all his heart today. Attaboy-chik! Upon review, I ruled I’d been a mean judge toward Mama. Long live Mama! She’s under-ranked.
I knocked on my sister’s bedroom and asked through the door if she could give me money. She said, “Fuck no, Benji,” and I said, “May God be as sweet to you, Bitch!” Back in my bedroom I put a kippah on my head, one with a Red Sox ‘B’ in back, and clipped it to a clump of my curls. In the mirror I judged how much the day’s humidity was making my bristly hair platz out around the kippah. I considered Oz Feldman, may he shake hands with a vise, and how he could probably wrap his long fingers all the way around my skinny neck. Then I wondered if girls think boys who play tennis are sexy, followed by realizing I couldn’t name any famous Jewish tennis stars.
Yesterday, driving me home from tennis camp, Father, may he steer off a cliff, said at seventeen he was horny for Steffi Graf and Chrisy Evert-Lloyd. Being seventeen myself I named Father several girls in pro-tennis I’ve seen on tv who are beautiful. But the girls I named happen to be black girls and Father ignored me like I didn’t say any names at all. I judged right there in the car that Father has chutzpah. In my estimation, only a man with chutzpah would go to the honor of nicknaming himself Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, especially if all he knows about tennis is instructing high school boys to play. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a yellow ball get lodged in his throat, that when two good tennis players are fairly paired, not strength wins, but reflexive instinct. Father said at Benji versus Oz in the Chazak camp championship I should play like a fox versus a bear in a cage. Do you know what he meant? I didn’t. Then he asked me if I thought my instinct for the subtleties of tennis were strong enough. He asked if I thought I had practiced the right things. But he didn’t wait for me to answer either of those questions. Instead Father kept talking. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a bee sting him on the tonsils, that a true tennis champion is master of reflexes, learning to repeat the correct techniques correctly time after time. I wondered if it’s honest for me to love the advice and hate the advisor. Then Father said what works in tennis is the same as in life with our religious rituals, that repetition itself defeats distractions.
This morning I looked on my dresser at the blue, velvet bag containing my tefillin – tiny handwritten pieces of Torah in two small, black boxes. I’m expected to tie the boxes to my arm and forehead every day. Tefillah were a gift from my parents, both of them, on my Bar Mitzvah. Guess what? I skipped strapping on black boxes and reciting Shema this morning, just like most mornings this summer. I didn’t do tefillin, which is bullshit, just to make parents happy, like I did when Father still lived at home. Instead I ruled that repeating an over-ranked blessing doesn’t do bubkes. God, like a chair-umpire in tennis, takes no side between me and my enemies. I decided instead to keep calling my own shots. When my sister went back into the bathroom, I went into her bedroom. On her bureau was a pink charity box she made when she was little in Hebrew school. I stole change for McDonald’s breakfast and left our apartment.
I shoved an empty sausage McGriddle box in my tennis bag. Yes, every Jew already knows that McGriddle is forbidden treyf, but this morning I called it good. I then used the tennis bag to block the aisle side of my bus bench. I pulled out my tablet on which I had an email that the new issue of Black-lete Sports Magazine was up for me to read during the bus ride.
Everyday this summer my bus to Chazak stopped at West Boston Boulevard where a facacta lady named Cynthia got on. All of us on the bus had to wait the rest of our lives while Cynthia paid her bus fare in small change.
“Hello, Benny!” Cynthia said, excited like she hadn’t seen me for ten years instead of a day. Her crazy hand wiggled like her plastic rain bonnet in the wind. Have I made it clear that I had previously ruled there would be no more rain today? I waved back barely in Cynthia’s direction making it clear to her I was concentrating on a post in Black-lete. Cynthia sat her fat tochis in an empty bench across from me and pulled out her leather-bound Bible. “I like that you’ve been riding my bus every day, Benny.” A couple weeks earlier she introduced herself, without me ever asking. That day I felt sorry for her and surrendered Benji, but she heard it wrong. No point in ever trying to fix her. She took off her rain bonnet and wrapped gray hair pigtails around her craggy neck. “A boy at the T-stop stole my bus pass, Benny. He looked Chinese.” As I’ve mentioned, I judged Cynthia to have been facacta and weird. She smelled moldy, like the boiler room of my apartment building. She had a thin nose like a butter knife and she wore big, lepish glasses that made it look like I was seeing her eyes through a microscope. “My daddy gave me a roll of nickels to pay the bus driver, Benny. Last night I prayed to Jesus to forgive the Chinese boy.”
“So, good for you.” Why did I say anything at all? I don’t know.
“You’re a sweet-pea, Benny. In my prayers I told God you stare at big-booby black girls on your computer. My daddy says white boys should only date white girls. I like that smell of perfume you wear everyday, Benny.”
I happened to be studying a picture of black women volleyball athletes in sexy sports-bras. “My parents instruct me only date Jewish girls,” I said.
“Jesus was Jewish,” Cynthia said.
“So, good for Jesus.”
The bus stopped in front of the pawnshop on Washington Avenue. Beautiful Jazmine and her two girlfriends stepped on, all of them black, and making a head-turning racket down the middle of the bus. The three of them wore matching, red, collared-shirt uniforms everyday, some office supply store logo on their left tits. I had never overheard names of the other two, just Jazmine. I judged the girls to be loud, mean and fucking gorgeous. Two of them bounced down in the bench behind Cynthia. In the bench behind me, Jazmine put her sneakers up and lounged against the window. Her red shirt collar stood up to her gold hoop earrings and she held her phone so close to her face she swabbed the surface with her long eyelashes.
“Hey, Skinny Jewish Boy,” one of twosome called out. She could only have been asking me, “Don’t your mother feed you? You look like my toothbrush is wearing a yamaha.”
“What do you know about wearing Drake on your shirt, Boy?” the other girl teased. “Hasn’t nobody told Jewish people yet that Drake is gay? You must be gay!” Her benchmate almost toyted-over it was so hilarious.
“Don’t be mean, girl,” the second one laughed. “Maybe Jewish Boy’s not gay. I mean, everyday he sits in the seat across from his retarded girlfriend.” Cynthia just sat smiling and pressing her gigantic eyeglasses against the words of her Bible.
“Hey, Old White Lady, have you and your Jewish boyfriend done the nasty yet?”
“Girl, I bet these two want to have a threesome with Drake in between!”
Maybe Cynthia was happy being an oblivious, Bible memorizing idiot, but the two sexy anti-Semitic girls pissed me off. I turned around in my bench at them and shouted back, “May you both fall in the ocean and float away on your big, black tits!” This riled those two girls up, but not Jazmine.
Never looking up from her phone, Jazmine said her first indirect words to me, ever. “You three all just shut up, please. Let’s not have a race riot here on the freaking city bus.” Jazmine’s friends followed her orders and made less loud gossip of people. Then Jazmine said to me, “If it matters, I doubt Drake is gay, McGriddle.” She estimated me confused and pointed over the back of my bench at the empty breakfast box, which was poking out of my tennis bag. “Just ignore those two hookers, but be careful what you say about a black girl’s boobs. We take them seriously.”
I judged Jazmine’s advice to be good, but couldn’t think of what to say back. Was it a miracle of God that she kept talking to me?
“I’ve seen you before on the bus with your tennis racket. You play every day?”
“Everyday in summer,” I answered. “Camp Chazak.”
“Oh, boy, I could never learn to play tennis there because I could never learn to pronounce it.”
I laughed a little. “You could never play tennis at Chazak because they only allow boys.”
“Excuse me on your religion, but that’s old fashioned and fucked up.”
May God bless Jazmine. She’s so pretty. “You’re judgment is accurate on that,” I said.
“You any good at tennis?” she asked me, also texting on her phone.
“Playing the summer championship today. I’m best at it.”
“Okay, Boy,” she said, “don’t be too all that, now.”
Don’t misjudge me. I meant to tell Jazmine that tennis is the best thing I can do. It’s the one thing I judge myself to be opposite a klutz. I’m told that back in the good old days my father was a teenage tennis champion as well as the top student in his class at Greater Boston Modern Orthodox Day School. Who did I hear that from? My father, of course, and he doesn’t let people forget. In the worse new days, at the exact same school, I’m not on the top of anything. But, at tennis camp? Almost no one can beat me, and I’m not letting you forget either. Tennis is the thing about which I give a shit that certain people such as my father are impressed.
Jazmine stared out the bus window and I stared at her soft looking neck, perfect as the pumpernickel my Mama used to make.
“So, where do go in your life to meet Jewish girls, McGriddle?”
“Oh, they allow girls in Post B’nei Mitzvah Club. We meet on Kosher Taco Tuesdays.”
“That’s the girls you date?” Jazmine’s huge brown eyes stared straight at me. “Which ever ones show up on Taco Tuesday?”
Was Jazmine making fun of me in a more professional way?
“Come on now, McGriddle.” Her fingers summoned me. “This bus is moving slower than my grandma walks. I need some boring conversation. Talk to me.”
“So far I haven’t been on many dates.” Don’t ask me why I volunteered such an embarrassing fact to Jazmine because I don’t know. Upon review, I suppose she made me feel okay telling her anything, instead of feeling like an asshole. “I’ve never been on a date with an African-American girl.”
“You don’t like black girls?”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” I said. “I don’t judge. Like when my Father was backhand drilling me yesterday, he’s also one of our tennis camp coaches, a couple of really pretty African-American girls were walking through the park along the court. My father noticed me noticing them instead of paying attention to his drills. He said his son should forget coming to like svartza girls.”
“Svartsa? That word sounds like I don’t want to hear what it means.”
“My Father said he thinks it’s okay to friends with you, but he’ll never give blessing to marry one.”
“Excuse me. If you want to marry a black girl, how are your parents going to stop you?”
“It’s just not done. Which I rule ridiculous, because my Father’s the most over-ranked role model of halahkah.”
“Okay, beg your pardon?”
“Halahkah means, like, religious way of life,” I explained. “In addition to being all knowing about tennis, my father talks like he’s a professional on the practice of all religious rituals. Meanwhile, last year he moved to a different house and he has his own blonde lady now, who he says is half-Jewish.”
“You got a mom?”
“I got one. She used to stay home. Do you know a guy named TJ Maxx? Now she takes care of him all day. Mama says my father met his blonde half-shiksa when he was still living with us. My father tells me and my sister, no, he didn’t meet her until after he moved out. He says he tried to get my Mama to stay on her medicine and stop being negative all the time. He says sure, a man honors his wife by keeping her happy, but not so much that he has to always be depressed. And, under halahkah, the wife’s not divorced until the husband is nice enough to give her a piece of paper that says You are hereby free of me. Father says he already gives Mama all his his money and she just wants to take away his children, to punish him for wanting to end their marriage in which she refused to be happy. In my judgment, Mama is sadder now. She says my father’s being a bully. She’s taking him to religious court, but in my estimation the odds are against whatever she wants, Jewish law seems like an even bigger bully. I say mazel tov to my father’s new happiness and his over-ranked half-shiksa. May they be buried alive together.
Jazmine nodded her head. “If we’re keeping it real, McGriddle, I’d say the same thing to my mom. Mine used to beat up on me every time she was drinking. Then, when I got big enough to kick her ass back, she started beating up on my little brother. Finally, I was just like, bye, we’re leaving. I took my brother and we went to my grandma’s house for good. The other day my mom text me, ‘You have to come back, Jazmine, because I say.’ I told her, ‘Hell no.’ She can’t make me do anything. You know, last Sunday in my grandma’s church, the pastor was talking about David and Goliath. I heard that story about a million times growing up, but I realized Sunday they’ve been telling it wrong.”
“What’s to get wrong? The kid kills the giant with one smooth rock served out of his sling. Then David cuts Goliath’s head off, and all the Jews learn God will always protect them from their enemies.”
“That’s like what they always taught me in Sunday School too, McGriddle, but I started thinking David and Goliath means something else.”
“The Bible says it right here in First Samuel,” Cynthia chimed in across the aisle. She was already on the exact page. Maybe I was wrong and Cynthia was hearing everything people were saying. She followed the scripture with her pointy witch nose and read it loud enough for the whole busful to hear. “The Lord, who delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the paw of the bear, will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine, Goliath.”
“I guess your girlfriend knows her Bible,” Jazmine said.
“Then you should guess again,” I argued, “because she’s not my girlfriend,”
“Come on, McGriddle, I’m just joking with you.” Jazmine’s smile was so sweet, but I untrusted her a little. “Besides, we’re friends now.”
“What do you mean David and Goliath means something else?” This was me defending Jewish tradition. Imagine.
“I’m just saying, when you think about it, why was David so gung-ho to step up and take on Goliath?”
Cynthia read aloud, “I will go and fight with this uncircumcised Philistine, who hath taunted and defied the armies of the living God. Then, Benny, To the man who kills this giant, the king will give his daughter in marriage and make his house free of taxes in Israel. That’s what the white Bible says.”
Jazmine rolled her priceless eyes. “There aint no white Bible and black Bible, Lady.” Then she turned back to me. “Goliath was talking trash about the Israelite’s army, right? He’s all – Come try it David, I’ll tear you up and feed you to chickens. But then it turns out Goliath’s really just slow and stupid. I mean, he stands there while David kills him with one rock. Sitting there, bored, in church I started thinking maybe David was the only one who saw something about Goliath that wasn’t so scary. Same as I saw with my mom. She drinks and beats up my brother, but beating on her children doesn’t make her strong. It’s her weakness. I’m not going to let her hit us anymore. Once you take away her beating people up, she’s got no powers left.”
“I think I know what you mean,” I said, my faith in Jazmine returning, “but say it again, maybe.”
“What I’m saying is maybe David was so freaking brave because he figured out the giant wasn’t really all that. Maybe he figured out Goliath was all talk and David was going to get the girl and the money. Maybe Goliaths are only Goliath because people keep thinking they are.” Then Jazmine’s nose wrinkled up. “Boy, somebody on this bus smells like a lot of rachet perfume.”
Our bus crossed over the three girl’s last intersection with me. On repetitive reflex Jazmine reached up and pulled the overhead cord for the bell. “This is our stop, hookers. See you tomorrow, McGriddle.”
The three girls stood up and tussled off the bus. I wanted to ask Jazmine exactly how she planned to see me tomorrow. There wasn’t time left to tell her I don’t usually ride the bus on Saturdays, on Shabbat. Also, today was last day of tennis camp. Yes, I’d like her to see me again, but couldn’t think so fast of where or when. See her again? I’d like to will that to happen. Maybe then I’d tell her she’s sexy. I also would tell her how I underestimated how many brilliant things she has to say. Long live Jazmine!
Cynthia’s nose ran across her Bible page and she read out loud, “Do not be slothful in zeal, Benny.”
Maybe Cynthia’s was under-ranked too. Jazmine was already gone.
Do you know Brookline Park? That’s where I got off the bus, where Chazak is. Sure, the sun was hot as Hell but the tennis courts were still wet from overnight rain. Father and another coach got there early with battery-powered puddle blowers. We camp boys followed after them with long squeegees. Soon the gray-bearded amateur umpire proclaimed our green, hard surfaces looked dry enough for play. A bunch of bearded father and grandfather types took positions as shot judges on the court lines. Then the gray umpire clambered up behind the stirrups of the tall chair.
Oz Feldman, may he be struck by lightning, and I are now hitting the little yellow ball back and forth, the mandatory ten-minute warm up. More people are here today watching me play than ever before. What’s more nervous making than possibly losing is going down the drain while all the world watches, coaches, other boys, parents, my parents. I’d still like to beat this white-eyed creep Oz, but the watchers make me feel suddenly less sure. By all sense Oz is a better tennis player. I can’t hit the ball over him, he’s too tall. I can’t hit the ball past him, he only needs one or two steps to cover the whole court. His giant serve helps him win a lot of free points. Plus he has a better angle and can fire the ball flat over the net, direct past me.
I hate to pray to God for help, and, as much as I hate listening to my father, his damn advice is the best. Don’t be intimidated, Oz is over-ranked. Serve into his body to jam him up. Remember Oz is better at overwhelming opponents with speed on the ball than he is at placing the ball. He lacks precision for the lines. I must use topspin to make the ball dip down to his feet. Wrong-foot him. He’s slower than sour cream. Trap him into changing direction, against momentum. Move him up the court with drop shots. Slice him. Reduce him to what he really is, a big yutz clomping after my sexy, short angles. Sure, I’m not as tall, but I have my own moves.
And, said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, don’t lose to the watchers. Father’s accurate about that. I estimate fifty percent of these people are praying I flop. Ignore such distractions. Ignore strangers walking dogs through the park, a noisy lawnmower, a helicopter, bugs, little kids roller skating on empty courts, the sun, humidity, shvits dripping into my eyes, hunger, thirst, white lines still slippery after the rain. Still, what Father never taught me is how to turn off the biggest distraction, the voice of a man inside my head always judging, always asking, What if you can’t get to Oz’s serves? What if you choke on every one of your own serves and keep double faulting? Have you ever tried to not think about something? Part of me has to think about what not to think of in order to remember what not to think about. Maybe a true tennis champion knows how, under pressure, to not think at all.
Off the old chair-umpire’s coin toss, Oz gets first service privilege. Of course his first serve is a mortar, and not where anyone else would put it, to my forehand! Plus there’s a crazy inside slice. Probably over a hundred miles per hour. My feet don’t think that fast. I jump left while planting my right sneaker at the same time, and my foot slides on the wet, white line. Then my right knee cocks in and twists as I go down. Where did I land? On the green asphalt, where else, with the inside of my knee.
I roll onto my back and grab my God damn knee. Lying there I cry for the worst pain in the history suffering. For a moment I want to ask God for mercy, but remember how I didn’t tefellin this morning? That’s right, I didn’t say Shema because tefellin is supposed be bullshit. This twisting of my knee is God’s kareth, his penalty for thinking I can do it myself when it was made clear I should reflexively repeat. Today I have underestimated the conditions of God and slippery white lines. When I close my eyes I see nothing but pain. I Shema outloud, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and might! These words I command you today shall be upon your heart!”
Praying with my eyes shut, I sense a shadow between me and the sun, a shadow dark as the ninth plague of Egypt. When I open my eyes I see the shadow is cast by a leaning skyscraper who has a forehead broad as the Wailing Wall, and a gargoyle face with the thin beard of young rabbi. His dangling shirt tzittzits point towards me on ground. Oz Feldman has rushed to my side from the other end of court, his white, devil eyes full of me. He got over here before the alterkocker umpire, may his dry-court proclaiming bones crumble, and before Father or even Mama.
I can’t stand up on my twisted knee, but Oz bends over like a drawbridge, stretching one giant arm under my neck, the other under my knees, and holds them safe together. Then he lifts my whole body in his arms and carries me like the smooth stone in David’s sling. Yes, Oz Feldman, may no shame come to him, carries me from the green asphalt to outside the fence. There he lies me down across the sideline bench, out of harm’s way. Long live Oz! Today it’s God who is my enemy. Oz Feldman is such a big asshole, he’s been easy to underestimate.