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The final point.

Neither of the elderly attorneys on the tennis court claimed the other as a friend. Call them enemy combatants, their battlefield enclosed by a Cyclone fence and restricted to the rules and stuffy etiquette defined by the white lines of the court.

Jack understood and compromised the ethos on both sides of the law and happily defended any crime and any criminal able to afford his astonishing fees. He applied the same take-no-prisoners approach on the tennis court.

He picked up the ball from the last point and headed back to the service line, keen to win the match from Winston, a rare occurrence.

Jack muttered to himself as he walked, C'mon Mister Ivy League Tennis Captain--oh, tall, silver-haired, princely prick of the privileged--just one more goddamn point. No phony winner's smile today.

He began his idiosyncratic service routine--wiping sweat from the racket handle with his shirttail, squaring away his visor, and executing a single, vigorous tug on the crotch of his shorts.

Jack tightened his grip on the racket and bounced the ball with his left hand. A distraction--Winston's desultory wave of his racket--stopped him in the midst of the service motion and he caught the ball without striking it.

"Wait. Sorry, I've got to sit down," Winston said.

Jesus, Jack muttered to himself on the other side of the court, match point and the supposed gentleman from the Hamptons pulls this bullshit.

"What's the problem, Winston?"

"I'm not sure. Just don't feel right."

"Hell, I don't feel 'right' either, Winston. Who does at this age? Let's just finish the match for Christ sake."

Winston gave him a long look before replying, "I need a minute."

"I'm not giving you mouth to mouth if you pass out," Jack chuckled. Then, more seriously, "Can you keep going, or do you want to default, or what?"

"Give me a minute. I think I can keep going. If I quit at match point you'll probably be the sick one; have a stroke or something."

"Okay, let me know when you're ready," Jack answered, deciding it was not the time to offer up a rejoinder, keeping his more negative thoughts to himself. Jesus, maybe the pain would go away if he just could yank that silver spoon out of his ass.

A few minutes later, Winston stepped up to the baseline to receive serve, his pallor a shade whiter than his tennis shorts, impossible to miss. Jack missed it.

"Go ahead, serve 'em up," Winston said grimly.

Jack restarted his pre-serve routine just as Winston fell to hands and knees--racket clattering--and then slumped sideways onto the court. This time there would be no discussion. Jack shuffled to the bench adjacent to the net post, pulled a cell from his gym bag, called 911 and explained the situation to the dispatcher ending with, "That's right, Lincoln Park."

There was scant time for Jack to do what he needed. He threw the gym bag on the wrought iron bench, and with impressive speed lugged the bench over to Winston, on the court. He leaned down and hooked his hands under Winston's arms.

"What're you doing?" Winston said, "It's probably my heart. God, I'm thirsty! I need water and my nitroglycerin."

"C'mon, Winston, try to help me, you'll be more comfortable on the bench."

"I'm so thirsty I can hardly speak," Winston rasped. "For God's sake I need water and a nitro tablet. They're in the side pocket of my bag."

"Yeah, yeah, but first let's get you up on the bench."

Winston, mouth slightly agape, dull eyes, had enough life left to help the lifting with his spindly legs. And enough life left to be pissed off.

Jack stuffed his gym bag against Winston's side for support, placed the racket in Winston's hand, curled the fingers around the grip, and scuttled back to the other side of the court. So close--nerves taut, bitter stomach acid rising to his throat--he could taste victory. The shrill screech of the siren grew louder. Victory--the pollution of which was lost on Jack--was at hand. Winston sat motionless, slumped against the gym bag, yet still gripping the racket, eyes brighter now.

Jack spun the serve enough to take the ball wide of Winston's bench. The match was over until Winston--arm and racket extended--managed to intercept the ball. The strings imparted just enough pace to get the ball to the top of the net where it dribbled over to bounce lazily onto Jack's side--a winning drop shot. Jack, confidently and foolishly flat-footed, didn't have a chance and answered Winston's smile--the winner's smile, the smile he would take into eternity--with one finger upheld. The ambulance siren was very close as Jack pulled the water bottle and pill from Winston's bag. With his index finger he pushed the pill under the unconscious man's tongue and sloshed a bit of water into his mouth, thereby fulfilling Winston's final request. The ambulance was pulling up to the park ...

Why does it always rain when I wear a suit, Jack grumbled, as he scanned the church parking lot for a space.

A jumble of makes and models, ranging from dilapidated to luxury vehicles, clogged the parking area. He glanced to the overflow lot--the same. He parked down the street, turned off the Mercedes, and sat for a moment, debating whether to go in.

It sure's hell won't matter to Winston. Besides, I've never met any of his family and I don't want to. Not that I have anything to hide.

When they played at Winston's club, he often invited Jack to his home but after many rejections had ceased the invitations. Jack had spoken by phone with Winston's wife, for the first time, two days earlier and assured her that he'd done everything possible to help Winston. He had even dragged the bench over to make his final moments more comfortable and had given him the water and pill.

Jack exited the car and trudged down the sidewalk to the church.

The anteroom of the church was as crowded and diverse as the parking lot. He hoped the church would have a drinking fountain. He'd been unusually thirsty all morning and regretted not taking some water from the Perrier he'd left in the car.

Christ, looks like the goddamn United Nations in here. Jack observed, as he jockeyed into position to eavesdrop. It's clear that not all of these people are the usual crowd that Winston ran with. Strange.

He strained to hear a slight black man wearing thick, outdated glasses, chatting with a pony tailed white man, "... and so old Winston, he talked to the condo owners and next thing I knew the association was not only giving me the okay to keep my job at the door, but also paying for my operation. He always had that little smile when I opened the door for him, or handed him a newspaper."

Jack moved on, slithering sideways through the crowd to get to the doorway separating the church interior from the anteroom. He slipped past the visitor's book without signing. Inside, he recognized a handful of lawyers, judges, and the type of people whom Winston had represented. Nobody he knew well, just a few with whom he had a nodding familiarity.

The rain had done little to cool the interior of the church. It still held the heat of the afternoon--and an unusual amount of flowers--smothering the mourners in the sweet, humid, stuffiness of a greenhouse. His mother's funeral had ruined it for Jack at an early age; the sweet smell of flowers forever linked to the bitter reality of death. The saccharine odor brought sadness and envy sweeping in....

Winston no doubt had a goddamn easy time of it, nurtured by his mother, patted on the head, and taken down all the right paths by his father. Shown the way. Private tennis court, private lessons.

My old man had little to do with me until Mom died and, even then, the only path he took me on led to Vinnie's Tavern on 42nd street. The only time he patted me on the head was when I brought him beers or when I grew antsy, perched on a bar stool waiting for him to have another final beer in a series of final beers. It was across from Vinnie's that I started playing tennis--public park, second-hand racket.

Jack took the first seat available, the last pew in the back. It was easy to spot Winston's wife standing near the casket at the front of the church. Tall, with a patrician bearing, exactly like her late husband, and exactly what Jack would expect. He wouldn't approach the casket until she moved away from it. He watched her and waited, sweaty and thirsty. Doffing his sport coat did nothing to slake his thirst or clamminess. He loosened his tie and rolled up the cuffs of his shirt, as the sweat ran in rivulets down his face, soaking through his shirt. He was the only person in the church to remove his suit coat. His sweating exacerbated his desperate thirst and he looked around the church, searching for the most likely exit to find water. Where's the bathroom?

"Excuse me, sir. Are you all right?" asked the middle-aged woman seated next to him.

"Yes, I'm fine. Just a bit warm in here, don't you think?" Jack answered, his mouth so dry it was difficult to speak. "I'm just thirsty, that's all."

"Hmm, I think there's a water fountain somewhere."

"Winston was thirsty, too," Jack whispered to himself.

"What?" the woman asked. "Winston?"

"Nothing. I didn't say anything about Winston," Jack said.

A man on the other side of her, apparently her husband, was frowning, watching intently. "You said something about Winston being thirsty."

"No I didn't," Jack said with more indignation than he intended.

The man, startled, looked away. The woman gave Jack an oblique glance. People in the pew in front of them looked back.

Jack had enough. That's it. I'm out of here. Why don't they mind their own business? I need water. But first I gotta see Winston.

He stood to careen around to the back of the pew and walked shakily behind it to the side of the church, avoiding the obvious route down the center aisle between the rows of pews. He would not be in the queue leading to Winston's wife. The clinging odor of the flowers grew stronger as he neared the front of the church.

When an avenue to the casket finally opened up, Jack shuffled in to view Winston in final repose. The other mourners invaded Jack's personal space, contributing to his discomfort. Clammy and wide-eyed, he stepped in closer, face as white as the satin lining of the casket. The smile, he had to see the smile.

That smug smile is unnatural, or is it? Jack thought. No, wait, one thing they got right was the smile. The same smile he died with--the winner's smile.

Jack was caught in the crush of other mourners milling around him and the casket. Once again, he caught snippets of their conversation, "... a classy guy ... what a great smile ... gave tennis lessons to inner city kids ..."

Jack breathed in the humid air; the sweet stench of the flowers, the false comfort, as his thirst worsened to a new, Saharan level. "Winston was thirsty like this," he whispered.

The pony-tailed man with his back to Jack, turned to face him, "Excuse me," he said pleasantly. "What about Winston?"

Jack reeled around and clumsily bulled his way through the crowd to walk the few steps to the side wall and give an adrenalin-aided push on the steel bar to open up the heavy side door of the church to the outside. The flowers near the door, tendrils stirred by the whoosh of air from outside, seemed to wave and whisper among themselves, their lurid colors heightened by the natural light allowed in by the open door. Jack stumbled slightly on the inside of the threshold and then managed to step outside to gulp a breath of the cooler air. The smell of the flowers clung to him, clung to the dampness of his shirt. As he walked toward the car, he brushed his hands over the sleeves and body of the shirt, trying to sweep away the sickening, sweetish odor.

Once seated in the car, he slammed the door behind him, started the car, and clicked on the air.

He began to reach for the Perrier, but stopped midair and slowly brought his hands together and folded them onto his lap as he took a deep, tremulous breath. Then he leaned back and closed his eyes.
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Author:Vanvick, Denny
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Previous Article:Edgar Athletic Poe.

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