Black Knight Short Story Contest – Second Place
The Sporting Game of Squash
by Geoff McCuen
Try as he might, Alex could not remember a time before this morning when he had felt this way. He actually felt giddy. “Giddy? What a stupid word,” he thought to himself. Surely he should be feeling something more respectable, like “proud”, “excited” or “energized”, but “giddy” was unfortunately the most accurate word to describe the emotion running through his body at that moment. In his youth, Alex seldom had occasion or opportunity to experience this kind of childlike joyfulness that was so common for others. His upbringing had been very different. So different, that is was highly unlikely that anyone in the entire building today would have a similar story. A carrousel of emotions was turning inside him, but instead of bringing a variety of leaping animals into view, this was an array of feelings that came to the forefront of his mind. The next one up was sorrow, and it brought him to the verge of a tear. Thinking about his childhood in the context of this place inevitably led him to think of the person mostly responsible for making this day possible. “I wish Mr. K could have been here for this. This is for you Mr. K!” Alex said, tilting his head skyward.
Mr. K was David Krispin. In the years before he and Alex met, David had been a mostly successful accountant with a small but well respected firm downtown. He and his wife Michelle enjoyed a very typical middle-class existence in the suburbs, opting for two dogs instead of the traditional “2.5 children”. It was not that they disliked children; they had tried to have their own for several years but without success. Despite the absence of kids of their own, both David and Michelle found other ways to invest themselves in the lives of young people. In addition to his accounting and mentoring work, David had a passion for the game of squash.
“The ‘game’ of squash. Ha!,” Alex mumbled aloud with a smile, glad to have moved past the emotion of sorrow and onto a new one. He and David had often enjoyed a spirited but friendly debate over this idea. Was squash more of a “game” or a “sport”? Being much younger and more fleet-of-foot, Alex had often taken the side that squash was more of a “sport” where physical conditioning and a strong swing mattered most. David usually took the position that squash was more of a “game” that primarily required skill and mental discipline. Occasionally, they would trade sides in the argument just for fun, but it was always apparent which side their heart was on. Despite the strength of his convictions and his confidence in having “won” each of these arguments, Alex was the first to admit that the older, slower, less-in-shape David won the lion’s share of their matches. However, in the last few years that they played regularly, this trend had begun to reverse and Alex found that he was winning more often than before. Maybe David had been right all along, and now Alex’s skills and technique had caught up with David’s. As he thought about David, he could not help but think about how they met and what a change of course his life took following that introduction.
As a 5th grade student, Alex had shown flashes of brilliance in the classroom, but more frequently had shown a propensity toward violence and poor judgment outside of school. Sadly, most of the adults in Alex’s life, the few that there were, were anything but the kind of people he needed around him. He was one of five children being raised by a single mother who worked all of the time, so it seemed to Alex. His sister, only five years his senior, was playing the role of both mother and father most of the time. To avoid the “chores” that she would often ask her siblings to help out with, Alex would often hang out in the streets and parks around their apartment building. Even at such a young age, he was beginning to draw the attention of the area gangs. He was in good shape and had proven himself to be one of the fastest kids in his class. Despite the warnings and requests from both his mother and sister not to hang around with the “boys on the corner”, Alex knew that in a few more years he would most likely have to choose sides in the gang battles that raged around him.
Each year the 5th grade class held a career day where several local people were invited to visit and talk about their careers. This year one of the special guests was Mr. David Krispin, CPA. As David talked about accounting, most of the class drifted off into that place where 10-12 year olds “go” when not being constantly entertained by loud noises, shiny things or cartoons. Surprisingly, Alex was more attentive (and less disruptive) during Mr. Krispin’s talk than usual and his teacher took notice. After the guests had left and the day was coming to an end, she called Alex to her desk. “I noticed that you seemed very interested in the accounting work that Mr. Krispin was talking about today.” She asked him, “ Would you like to know more about what accountants do and what it takes to become one?”
“No ma’am, not really. But Mr. Krispin just seemed like a cool guy,” he replied. That evening his teacher called David and told him all that she knew about Alex, his situation at home and his potential to be a better student. She finished by asking if he would be interested in meeting with Alex once a week during their lunch period as a mentor. David responded enthusiastically that he would be thrilled to do so if Alex was also interested. The next day after class, Alex’s teacher discussed the opportunity with David, and in a way that only young boys can, he gave his own enthusiastic response by half-heartedly shrugging his shoulders, raising his eyebrows and grunting, “Sure, I guess.”, all the while staring transfixed at some spot on the floor.
As David and Alex met during the lunch periods in the weeks that followed, they became more comfortable with each other and began to share about topics other than just school work and accounting. The meetings were beginning to have an impact on Alex and his behavior. Both his teacher and his sister had noticed the improvement and complemented Alex on his good work. In no time at all, the school year was about to be over and with it, the end of tests, homework and lunch periods. Alex realized how much he looked forward to his lunch meetings with Mr. K and wondered if they would continue to meet over the summer. To his surprise, the last time they met for lunch, Mr. K asked Alex if he would be interested in continuing their meetings at the local YMCA on Saturday afternoons. Alex was more than agreeable, as he loved going to the Y to play basketball and swim, but it seemed like a strange place for him to meet with Mr. K.
The following Saturday when Alex walked past the check-in counter at the YMCA, he saw Mr. K talking with another man. It was clear that they had both just finished some type of intensive workout and were both holding a strange looking racquet. The racquets were bigger than the racquetball racquets that he had seen so many men carrying at the Y before, but not as large as the tennis racquets they played with in gym class. When David saw Alex come into view, he smiled and greeted him. “Alex, this is my squash partner, Mr. Wellington. Today I’d like to teach you a little about this game that we both love. Have you ever played squash before?” “Played it? I’ve never even heard of it,” Alex said with a quizzical look on his face. Over the next few months Alex and Mr. K continued to meet at the Y, spending time hitting balls on the squash court and then talking about what was happening in their lives.
Alex found squash to be very appealing on multiple levels. First, it had a certain elegance about it, much like the people who did ballroom dancing on the show that his sister watched. Just as a couple who are about to launch themselves into a waltz will stand with one arm lifted up and their fingers wrapped firmly, but not too tightly, around their partner’s hand, so stands both squash opponents with their racquets held aloft for either the serve or the return of serve. With the first sounds from the strings being played by the orchestra, the dancing couple begins to move, each step being deliberately taken from one spot to the next so as not to entangle the other but to arrive at the next location with minimum wasted motion. So too the squash players begin their movement from the first sounds of the strings as the ball squashes against the server’s racquet. As the rally continues into the deep recesses of the court, the two players alternate darting quickly into the corner and then back to the “T” with precise footwork that also moves them efficiently from one spot to the next without becoming entangled with each other.
On another level, Alex liked the challenge of combining both quick and strategic thinking, similar to that involved in a timed chess match. Unlike dancing which requires a repetition of memorized and often choreographed movements, both squash and chess require a player to improvise and attempt to surprise their opponent. At the moment the serve rockets off of the server’s strings, the clock starts running for the returner. In fractions of a second his or her mind must analyze a number of factors. For the chess player these run from examining which piece was just moved, to where it was moved, any immediate threat to his pieces, all possible future threats based on the move if not countered, and any new vulnerability of his opponent’s pieces. All of the same are true for the squash player, but there are even more. In squash it is important to know which shots your opponent can hit well and which ones they cannot. In chess, each player’s rook moves exactly the same no matter where it is on the board. In squash, not every player can hit a backhand rail as effectively from one part of the court as another. Discovering these tactical elements quickly, and then making the proper shot of your own, can often mean the difference in the final score.
On yet another level, the very environment of squash can affect the game. Unlike chess, where the board material and construction style have everything to do with aesthetics and nothing to do with the play of the game, squash is more like tennis and golf, where the playing surface and conditions can have a significant role in the competition. Spend any time watching the “Majors” in either tennis or golf, and it becomes readily apparent that some players do better on clay versus grass (in tennis), or bent versus Bermuda (in golf). Similarly, some squash courts may have differences ranging from the wall surface to the court dimensions. A player who is used to playing on a hard-ball squash court (18 feet wide) will find the extra width of a soft-ball court (21 feet) to be more challenging to cover, while conversely, the soft-ball court player may find that on a hard-ball court, or even a converted court (20 feet), the ball seems to come off the wall “too soon”. Squash balls will come back from a concrete front wall much differently than from a wooden or glass wall. Even the age of the court (the number of paint layers), can have a pronounced affect on the way the ball behaves.
The court that Alex would be playing on today would be unique in his experience. He had played on many glass-wall courts before. He had even played on courts with the large open spaces in the lower front corners for photographers to sit behind the see-through barriers, as would be the case today. What would make this court different is the new electrified surface that had just been unveiled for this event. In a joint venture between the court manufacturer and a leading computer company, the surfaces of the court and the ball had been treated with a special nano-technology material that was not supposed to affect the play, but would allow computers to constantly monitor the location of the ball and where it struck the wall or floor. When the computer sensors were tied into the closed circuit system, the ball could be enhanced allowing spectators watching on the huge screens hung around the venue and those watching on television to easily keep track of the ball and the play.
Looking back, Alex could not believe how far he had come since those first years meeting with Mr. K. Alex’s thoughts again went to that first summer in the YMCA when Mr. K had introduced Alex to the game/sport he now loved so much. The next August had arrived sooner than either Alex or David could believe or desired, and school was about to start. Alex would be entering the 6th grade and that meant a new building with new classmates, new teachers and new opportunities. David knew that Alex was entering a critical point in his life where decisions he made in the next few months would have a profound effect on the rest of his life. The mentoring that David was providing had been valuable, and Alex had embraced it and responded very positively to it, but David knew it would not be enough. He knew that Alex needed to be surrounded with a better set of peers than before. He asked Alex if he would like to continue to develop his squash game and get additional assistance with his school work through an urban-squash program not far from his school. In the first of many good decisions he would make that year, Alex said he would be interested and agreed to meet with the director the next week. As each of the next several years rolled by, Alex continued to improve both his game and his grades. He began to develop some deeper friendships than he had experienced before and continued to meet with David weekly. Middle school years turned to high school years and soon it was time to think about college. College would have had no place in his future had it not been for the role that David and urban squash had played in his life, and Alex knew it. It was just after the winter break of his junior year when he got the call from his sister that Mr. K had passed away. He had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer a few years earlier, but had been a fighter up until the very end. Alex had lost his mentor and one of his best friends, but he was relieved that his suffering was over.
But now, sitting in this locker room, even college was a few years behind him, and his thoughts came back to his present situation. With his match less than two hours away, there was no more time for conditioning, no more time for practicing forehand and backhand rails or boasts, no more time for anything other than that which he had reluctantly come to accept as the most important element of squash – mental preparation.
With ninety minutes to go before Alex’s match, Coach Callahan popped his head into the section of lockers where Alex was sitting and said, “Let’s go guys! Time to start warming up.” The giddiness Alex had felt was long gone, and was now replaced with a more focused feeling of determination. Alex grabbed a pair of racquets and headed toward the warm up courts. As he passed by several people in the hallway outside the locker room, he enjoyed hearing all of them in their countless conversations, yet he couldn’t understand a word being spoken. Hearing such a broad range of different languages was one of the things he always enjoyed about matches like these, but he knew this one was different, very different.
As Alex and the rest of his team turned the corner for the walk down the last stretch of hallway leading to these electrified courts, from a distant part of the building, they could hear the muffled tones of the orchestral recording that would be the accompaniment to their dance today. It wasn’t a classic tune from one of the old masters like Mozart, Bach or Beethoven, but a more contemporary tune. It was the unmistakable and inspirational opening of the Olympic Fanfare. Not only was this Alex’s first Olympics, this was the first time squash was being played at the Olympics. He couldn’t help but think about how far he had come in his life to be a part of this moment, and how far squash had come in its growth from a school-boy’s game in England to one of the international Olympic Games. As this thought faded from him mind, another one hit him and he smiled. “The Olympic ‘GAMES’. Ha! You win, Mr. K, you win!”
Geoff McCuen learned to play squash as a very early age, being taught by his grandfather who had played at MIT in the 1940’s. Later Geoff played collegiately himself while a student at Purdue in the 1980’s.
Since 2004, Geoff has been the Squash Coach for the Men’s and Women’s teams at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. As Squash is a club sport at Notre Dame, this is an unpaid volunteer position. Outside of squash, Geoff has worked in the field of Human Resources for the past 16 years. Currently he is the Training Manager for Electronic Commerce Inc., a web based payroll and HRIS service, based in Elkhart, IN.
Geoff has been married to his best friend, Michelle for over 14 years and appreciates her support of the time he puts into helping to grow squash around the Midwest.
The above story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.