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Gretchen in the Box

Sarah Z. Sleeper | Mike S. Young

“Fifteen, forty!” The umpire’s voice booms over the court and I glare up at him. I hate his smug smirk and want to smash a ball into his face so he’ll shut up. Can’t the goddamn guy bring it down a notch? Does every goddamn word he says have to be so fucking loud? Gabriel Garcon, in his pressed white shirt and white-piped cashmere cardigan, a fucking pansy, can’t make it as a player so lives out his Napoleon complex on the sideline, bossing gamers around. After the match I’ll squeeze his pansy hand so hard I’ll break his fucking fingers.

I bend forward over the baseline and bounce the ball fast, two feet up and down, up down, up down, up down, from my hand to the dusty red clay. “Mantek’s manic bounce.” That’s what some jerk of a sportswriter called my service routine. Asshole probably never hit a ball in his life, probably couldn’t get his lard ass out of the way of the overhead I’d like to thump into his neck.

“Mantek! Serve already!” The catcall comes from behind me, near the friends’ box, but I don’t recognize the voice. Instead of bouncing the ball seven times, I bounce it twelve times. I feel my left hand caking with clay and watch brick-colored specks sift through the humidity and settle on the white line near my shoe. Floating flim flam of clay, suspended in air, stopped, then vanished from my vision.

Ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball. No court. No lines. No net. Nobody. Not me. Not him. All ball. The ball is all. Yellow and red and ready to fall.

I feel my left arm lever forward and up and the ball hovers — three — perfect — feet — over my head and two inches to the right. Inhale. Arch backward, back forms a reverse “c,” right ear cuts a right angle to the court, torso torques, spine twists diagonal and lateral. Right arm detaches from shoulder socket, joint disjointed, unconnected rubber band whip lasso. Press hand hard into sticky grip, squeeze fingers three and four into racquet neck. Exhale, grunt. Wrist breaks, racquet snaps, snake strike on sweet spot. Thwack!

Campo lurches sideways toward the stands, a rainbow of torsos with half arms. His arm jerks across his body, his racquet head bullseyes at the front row, he sweeps the empty air in a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree rotation and finishes with his racquet head again leveled at the front row, this time from behind his head.

“Thirty, forty!” booms Garcon. I ignore him, reveling in the ace, inhaling and absorbing the thunderclap of applause and swelling chant, rising up from midbleacher level and filling the airspace and my earspace. “MANtek! MANtek! MANtek! MANtek.”

I turn to my box, walking toward them through a vacuum, sound has vanished, my eyes laser on my coach Larry, hitting partner Sasha, publicist Logan, trainer Alexsander, dad, and to her, looking at her for her response, trying to catch her eye, to exchange eyes with her. I see the top of her nut-brown hair, her face downturned toward her lap. I discern the whisper of a smile on the outside edges of her lips and wait, wait for her to compose herself, to tamp down the joyful tears she hides from the camera, to lift her head and beam her gaze down upon me, an approving-loving-knowing look, only for me and the camera to see.

She giggles down at her crotch. The top of her head affronts me and fills up the on-court TV screen. I see a silver flash from her left hand as her platinum wedding band catches the light, a smaller replica of the one I wear. Then I see the fingers on her right hand wiggling, poking, pushing, thumbing into the keyboard. My heart thuds. I stop walking toward them. I throw the signals for towel and ball to the ball girl and turn back toward the court. I peek up at the screen, still full of Gretchen’s head and now her hands, texting, cell phone flashing silver on the screen. She doesn’t look up. I start my service routine.

Final set score, Mantek three, Campo love. My third major win. It’s not a calendar-year grand slam, but it could be a career slam if I can pull it out at the Aussie. My victory here at Roland Garos in the wilting heat and choking clay dust has moved me a step closer to tennis immortality.

“Mantek, you finally started practicing, eh?” Campo says when we clasp hands at the net. “Your backhand still sucks but your serve is a bullet.”

“Thanks, Camp. Good game,” I lie, clapping him on his arm, smelling his sweat, not meeting his eyes. The TV screen flashes back and forth between us and Gretchen. She is standing now, clapping and hugging my father. I’d bet my new Lexus that she didn’t see match point. Still, she’s there, in the box and I can see her ivory sundress, her suntanned shoulders glossy and smooth. When I shake Garcon’s hand I decide not to crush it.

About Sarah Z. Sleeper

Sarah Z. Sleeper has freelanced for Fortune,The Christian Science Monitor, The National Journal and others. She recently completed an MFA, a short story collection, and an ekphrastic poetry collection, and she won an award from Writer's Digest. She's working on a novel and is psyched to see her story rendered with original art.

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