Alison’s father asked if she’d play a game with him, and she almost didn’t, because every time she’d seen him since leaving John he’d managed to say the divorce was a tragedy for everyone. Last time he’d said, “You’re not the only person involved. We all like John. Now we have to adjust too.” That and the fact that her father always played well enough to beat her.
It was early morning, but it was going to be a hot day. Three sides of the court were made up of a high, green, cyclone fence, and the fourth side was a high stucco wall, painted the color of marigolds.
“Glad you could make it,” he said.
“Likewise,” she said. She spun her racquet in her hands.
They stretched and he handed her two tennis balls. She tucked one into her shorts pocket and started a slow rally with the other, close to the net.
Large oranges hung heavy on a tree just outside the court. A bougainvillea vine, covered in bright fuchsia petals, clung to the marigold wall. Beyond the orange tree was a sage dotted desert, and all of these things, the oranges, the fuchsia petals, the sage, and the heat, mixed with light breezes coming off low desert buttes.
“Smell that?” Alison asked.
“Smell what?” he said.
“The desert,” she said. “It’s breathing.”
Her father sniffed the air loudly. “Remember when you’d come to LA, just a bright, young teenager, and we’d play all out, using wooden tennis racquets and plain, white balls? No one plays that way anymore. They use huge, oversized racquets, and you can’t find white balls anymore. Look at our racquets. They’re graphite and titanium for god’s sake.”
A bright, young teenager, Alison thought. That’s what he liked to remember. She saluted him with her racquet and smirked.
“Tennis used to have finesse and rules,” he continued. “Now the only rules are how to keep score. No one has to wear white. It used to be a gentleman’s game. That’s the way tennis should be. Why did it change? Do you ever wonder about that?”
“Times change Dad,” she said. She wasn’t in any mood to debate the evolution of tennis.
They stepped to the baseline and kept the rally going. After a couple of minutes he said, “Ready?”
They rallied for serve and he won. Alison bounced on her toes while he got ready to serve, then bam! He aced her on his first serve.
“Nice one,” she said.
“Didn’t know that was coming,” he said. He twirled his racquet and grinned.
“Right,” she said.
He served his second ball softly, and Alison returned it clean to his backhand. He sliced it down the side of the court. Despite the slice, it landed softly, just inside the baseline. “See that?” he said, “Now that’s finesse. Why doesn’t anyone play that way anymore?”
“Looks to me like you’re out for blood,” Alison said.
“If you think so, dear,” he said. “How’s John?”
“Fine,” Alison said.
“I’ve always liked him,” her father said.
Like hell, Alison thought, but she kept it to herself.
“Sometimes a couple just needs a break. Have you looked at it that way?” he asked.
Alison narrowed her eyes and walloped the ball with her forehand. It landed just inside the baseline. Her father missed it.
“Nice shot,” he said.
“Thank you,” Alison said.
It went on like that. The morning warmed and they both broke out in a sweat. Large wet spots developed on their shirts. The back of Alison’s neck, from the edge of her shirt to her hairline, the rounded bones of her shoulders, and the tender backs of her knees got hotter and hotter in the sun.
Alison’s father chattered the whole time. He talked about love, compromise, and obligation, as if he’d managed all of them well. His voice seemed connected to the ball, getting louder after each hit, receding when the ball was on her side, each time giving her an opportunity to defend or explain herself. But some things are understood only if you’ve lived them, and she knew if she tried to explain how mean she and John had become, how they’d spat out “I’ve never REALLY loved you,” to each other, it would only sound like kids having a fight.
Instead, she resisted the urge to give into the way her father played the game. He’d been playing every day, and she hadn’t played regularly in years. She returned as many shots as cleanly as she could, hitting them back to the same spot over and over. She’d seen the monotony of that kind of play lull him into boredom more than once. Today though, he had one trick after another. He sent most of his shots to the extreme corners of the court, making her run and whack at some wildly. When she least expected, he tapped them lightly over the net or hit balls abruptly into her feet. When he was up five games to her two, and the score was forty-love his favor, she raised her hand and called out, “Last shot. Winner takes all.” Every now and then he’d let her win when she said that.
“You’re on,” he said, and then wham! He aced a serve past her knees.
“What the hell?” Alison yelled.
“What, weren’t you ready?” he yelled back.
“Son of a bitch, Dad. Since when did you have to prove you could beat me?”
“Don’t swear. It’s not lady-like. Hey, how about hitting against the machine? Your wrist looks like a wet noodle.”
Alison went over to the bench, took a sip of water, and noticed a large, green iguana sitting on the wall, near the corner of the court, just above her father. It never changes, she thought. Why do I ever think he’s going to change? No one was ever good enough, strong enough, lady-like enough, enough of a gentleman, or had enough finesse. The iguana chewed on a nearby leaf. A high, shrill bird called out and the iguana’s tail snapped suddenly and sharply in the air. It cracked like a whip.
“Hey Dad,” Alison said. “Looks like you have a friend.”
“What?” her father asked.
Alison tilted her chin toward the wall, “Up there, a big, fat iguana just found some lunch.”
“That’s Fred. You going to hit some more? He comes out every morning, sits on the wall, and watches me play.”
Alison’s arms glistened wet, and she knew she should walk away. There was no way to win this game. Fred was better suited for this sort of thing, designed so perfectly for a hot day in the desert sun, needing only the occasional, lightning flash of tail to intimidate. No nerves, no emotion, just a lump of reptilian instinct, living only for itself, with absolutely no need for anything but a few leaves to munch on while sunbathing on a high wall. What a perfect life, she thought.
“You ready?” Alison’s father called out. He’d set the ball machine up so it would shoot balls across the net, to Alison’s side of the court.
Alison looked at the sheen of sweat on her arms, licked her lips, and walked back out on the court. She bounced on her toes, spun her racquet, then gave herself up to turning her body slowly, bringing her racquet back carefully, thinking about the position of her shoulders, and the placement of her feet. She remembered a time when all she had to think about was where to place the ball. Her father, who’d sat down for a minute, got up and walked over to the machine. He turned the switch off.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“You tell me,” he said. He turned the machine back on and adjusted the speed higher. “Now hit this one like you mean it.” A ball came straight out, and Alison threw her racquet in front of her face. The next one followed close behind. She stepped aside and instinctively sliced it with her backhand. It bounced close inside the opposite baseline, and spun high into the air.
“That’s it Ally,” he said. “Think about the ball as someone you’re really mad at. Know anyone like that?”
Alison clobbered the next ball, and the next. Her father stepped in again and turned the machine off. “Feel that? That’s what I mean. That’s how you used to hit them. Like you meant it. Swing that blasted racquet!”
“What about finesse?” she asked.
“There’s finesse, and then there’s finesse,” he said. He turned the machine back on.
Alison missed the next ball, and the next.
“Hit the goddamned ball!” he yelled.
Whack! Alison hit the next ball right at his feet.
“That’s it!” he yelled. “Now slam this one!”
Alison aimed and hit the next ball harder. It hit him in the shin and he hardly flinched, just kept on talking. “Use the speed of the ball on your return. Now make some noise! Grunt when you hit the ball! Bring that racket back before you move, and grunt!” he yelled. “Know you’re going to blast it!”
Alison whacked the next one and grunted loud. He moved off the court and she glanced at the wall. Fred twitched his head. A ball hit her in the calf and she cried out as it seized into a tiny fist of muscle.
“You hurt?” her father called out.
She turned to him and glared. Her calf felt like it was going to pop. Another ball shot out of the machine and she moved her racquet quietly in front of it. It bounced into the net. She flexed her foot, moved her racquet in defense, and let the muscle in her leg slow down. Fred chewed on another leaf. The sun was hotter now, and small rivers of perspiration tumbled between her shoulder blades and down her chest. The back of her neck was sopping wet.
“You mad?” her father called out.
“Fuck you,” she muttered. She bounced a couple of times on her toes and imagined sipping a cold margarita in the shade. Come out and play a game, hah! Come out and get slaughtered and humiliated was more like it.
But the sun felt good, and sweating felt better, so she stretched her neck and her aching calf, and let the balls land around her as she melted into things. The sun, the iguana, the tennis court. She let the heat of it all in, smiled grimly, and flexed her shoulders.
Her father walked over to the machine and turned it off.
“Nothing. Turn it back on.”
“Need some water?”
“No,” she said.
He grinned sideways and turned the machine on sweep, so the balls would go from left to right and back again. Fred sat motionless on the wall as Alison shuffled back and forth, winding and unwinding her body, hitting each ball into the far corners of the opposite court. She grunted with each hit, grunting softer than her father would have liked, but grunting still, and when she felt the muscle in her calf unwind she went all out, hitting them as hard and accurately as she could. Wham! Wham! Wham! She ran and jumped into each swing.
A huge exhale of breeze came off the desert then, picking up the scent of crushed sage and tree-ripe oranges, bathing the court as if it were a fantastical sauna, and then a set of fluorescent green scales popped out along Alison’s shoulder blades and rippled down her arms. Underneath, peacock blue scales appeared, and bright orange scales started pushing out from under her shirt. The scales rippled down her legs. With each winding and unwinding of her body new scales appeared and soon her feet were large rubbery pads with sharp, glistening claws. They clicked against the tennis court as she ran back and forth between each ball, cushioning the up and down motion of her legs, her muscles a wonderful mixture of supple and strong, and best of all, the scales created a breeze of their own, cooling her as they opened and closed. She wondered why it had taken this long, why she had to wait so long, and spent so many years frightened of losing control. Of what? Who really knew? Soon her sweat was no more than an unnecessary human thing. All she needed was the movement of her body and the fluttering of these scales, and then a large, rubbery, fuchsia comb popped from the top of her head and it wobbled gaily as she turned and spun. She could whack anything moving within twenty feet of her, and place it just so. The balls she’d missed before, she crunched with her toes. Her tongue grew sinuous and long, and she cackled, thinking she could smash a tennis ball with it if she tried, and somewhere in the distance she heard her father yelling, cheering her on, saying “Yes! Ally, hit another one! That’s it! Put everything into it! Smash that sucker! Keep going! You can do it! That’s my girl!”
Soon she was twirling around the court as a queen iguana. Fred raised himself up on his hind legs and cheered. Alison tossed her chin his way, showing a bright ribbon of marigold scales running down her neck. She lobbed a ball high and Fred whipped his tail wildly through the air, like a long, green lasso and sent the ball high across the desert. His eyes began to glow neon yellow. Alison opened her mouth to cheer, but her tongue fell out, grazing against her teeth, which were sharp as needles now, and she hissed loudly. She worked to draw her tongue back in, then she realized she could curl and uncurl it, right past the sharp rows of teeth. After that, all she had to do was move effortlessly, side to side, unroll her tongue and swat each ball. “Way to go Ally!” her father cheered as he dumped basket after basket of balls into the machine. “Kill it Ally! Smash that ball! Keep moving your feet!”
Pretty soon the court was covered in tennis balls, surrounding Alison in a bright, yellow-dotted lagoon. Alison’s father walked toward the machine to turn it off. “That’s probably enough for now,” he said.
Alison watched him through thin slits, unable to believe he’d end it now. “No!” she yelled, “Leave it on!” But her tongue was in the habit of curling and uncurling now, so what came out was a guttural, reptilian kind of groan. Her father was all smiles, congratulating her and asking if she’d gotten rid of a little anger, saying sometimes it took a game or two to take the edge off. She wanted to stay right there, on the court, with her brilliant and bright scales keeping the air around her so cool, swatting effortlessly and snatching single-mindedly at anything coming her way. It took a supreme amount of concentration to quiet her tongue, but finally, after what seemed an eternity, she croaked some human words out, “Leave it on! For God’s sake Dad. Leave the goddamned machine on!”
She inhaled the scent of sage, orange, and desert heat. It was her scent now, the marigold wall a luminous reflection, the bougainvillea vine a glorious, bright necklace, the heavy oranges beckoning adornments. She tossed her head and marveled at the wobble of fuchsia comb on her head, then she gnashed her teeth, delighted with the way they clicked and clacked.