Black Knight Short Story: “Scenes From A Squash Life”

Black Knight Short Story Notables:

“Scenes From A Squash Life ” by Franklin Lake

I’ve always like the actor Burt Young. He plays a tough guy slob. I think his best role was as Joe in the movie “Once Upon A Time In America.” He and Joe Pesci play Italian mobsters who hire  a group of  young Jewish mobsters led by De Niro and James Woods to heist a shipment of diamonds coming to NY from Detroit.

After Joe  tells a twisted story of having an affair with a married Tuesday Weld who works for the jeweler, all the while eating pigs feet with his bare hands, he turns to Pesci and burps and wipes his greasy face with a napkin and  says “ It’s all true. Life is stranger than shit.” He was right. Of course.

Scene One- College

My father loved baseball. From the time I was a little  kid he coached me , played with me, pushed me, encouraged me, and occasionally berated me for good reason. He even built a batting cage in our backyard. I’m not sure if he built it for me or for himself. He loved to hit. Even in his fifties he’d crank it up to maximum speed and rifle line drives . I loved the man and I loved baseball . I was a catcher and I wore the Tools of Ignorance proudly- like the armor of Achilles. I had a decent bat, but nothing special. Back in the 1970’s hitting .250 using a wooden bat was equivalent to hitting .325 today with these Easton metal magic wands. Throwing out runners was my specialty. I had a gun for an arm and showed it off at every opportunity. During my high school senior year I was recruited by the new coach who’d just been hired by my( now) swanky alma mater to inject new blood and toughness into the program. After a spotty freshman year our class jelled and we went on a three year tear, winning the league twice and covering ourselves in what we thought was glory.

My biggest disappointment in college was to never having had one date with a girl. Not one. Not a kiss, not a corsage, not a prom companion- zippo. Not even a drunken hook- up because I didn’t like beer and couldn’t afford real liquor. The field hockey field was adjacent to our diamond. During Fall ball I’d make it a point to check out “ The Field  Reeds” in their little skirts and knee socks . My imagination was florid, and criminal. My favorite peach was Donna. She kept her waist-length hair braided into a long pony tail , but off the field she’d let it free. I liked that A lot. On the field she was tough. I’d make it a point to hit the training room when she was getting her ankles taped every day. “ Hi Donna. What’s up? “   No response. Ever. Just a nod and a shrug. Days. Weeks. Months. Years. Nothing. She’d simply  go about her business privately. Did she know what I wanted? How could she not? I’d look, and drool. Starting varsity catcher, picture on the back page of the newspaper, moored in dry dock. Ouch.

Senior year we were  practicing on E floor indoor on a Saturday  in February , taking infield and some BP in the bowels of the gym. Girding our loins, getting ready for the Florida trip.  The elevator was on the blink  so we had to walk up when we were done . I heard some shouting on C floor and walked over to see what was happening. When I turned the corner I saw two players  down in a squash court which was in a very  steep pit. These guys could PLAY. One was clearly a Mexican because his shirt said  “IberoAmericano” or something like that with a red white and green flag, and the other was a player  from our school- a guy whom I knew from some late night ‘Za runs to  Victor’s Pizzeria. Lots of shouting,  home- town clapping, and I was fascinated. Yippee Tommy won!  Wowow these guys were quick. I need to learn this game! Fitness, quickness, hand eye- hell I can learn this PDQ ! This is the future. I’m not getting drafted- time to get a J O B, and that’ll keep me fit. I’m a genius.

Scene Two- New York and The Met A Doubles

We’ve made it to the semi – finals of the Met Amateur A doubles. I’m moving up in the firmament of squish.

It’s  arrange your own time and place, but it’s got to be played before March 15th.
A few calls and I learn the good/bad news. We get the second seeds- Scott Frazzano and Tom McAleer. Scott’s  originally a suburban Jersey guy like my partner John Dempsey and me, but he’s now living in Hoboken. He plays out of the Yale Club. Tom is a member of Heritage- best doubles court in the city. Amazing ceiling, great lighting, solid walls- it’s a joy. So we’’ll play there. They’re good guys – all four of us are friends from the circuit.

“Scott- how about we play at Heritage Saturday at 4 and then we have some dinner in town?”

“Good idea, Carlo. Cassandra will be in town so she can join us for some chow. Ask John to bring Grace, I”ll have Tom bring Suzy, and we’ll go to Il Vagabondo. Maybe we’ll see some of the Rangers there.”

“ Great idea, but I don’t have a date. What about me?  See if Cassie knows anybody . I can use a date. Will you ask her?”

“ Yeah but don’t get your hopes up. Most of her friends are dogs. Just show up and we’ll play it by ear.”

Heritage is a five floor fortress on Park Avenue. It looks like an Italian Palazzo . All Male. Jacket and Tie. All Male. Period, full stop. And good players.

The locker room is a male nirvana. Dimly lit, green couches, the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal, thick green  carpet, wood paneling, and in the summer, quietly buzzing fans move the air around. Above the fireplace at one end there’s  a painting of the club’s patron saint, looking stern, holding a bat, from about 1928. Great steam room, probably THE greatest. John and I drove into town with plenty of time to spare. The club was almost deserted on a Saturday afternoon. We signed into the guest book at the front desk and were eyed suspiciously by the doorman. We’re not women, and we’re wearing suits. We’re carrying bags that say DUNLAP and DONNAY.

“HI. We’re playing a Met A doubles match with Tom McAleer.”

“Ok. Dressing room is on three. Good luck.”

Frazzano and McAleer were already dressed, ready to rumble.

“ Carlo, Cassie’s friend is going to join us for dinner. Her name is Christine and they work together. She’s not a dog.”

“Ok – I guess beggars can’t be choosers.” Scott has good taste- I trust him. There’s cause for optimism.

The match starts. Huge empty gallery – no glass back wall ,naturally . John is wired into the  backhand reverse and I’m slugging forehand cross courts. They’re nervous. Game one to us at 12.

Game 2- Tom  on the right steps up and starts volleying winners. Scott hits his deadly backhand  rolls and I’m too deep to get them. Ugh. Game two to them at 9.  Deflating.

Game 3- the battle is joined. John is a pretty big guy and he’s standing in front of Scott and volleying hard straight rails . He’s also hitting some nasty forehand Phillies which Tom fudges.  I move up to get the rolls. We’re on fire. 2-1 to the good guys at the break. Five minutes to regroup: water, men’s room break, headband. We can do this. Butt slaps of encouragement. We can do this. It’s our time. Jersey Boys.

Back into the court. When I turn around there are two WOMEN in the gallery. WHAAAT? How can there be women in the gallery? Impossible. This is the Heritage Club for chrissake- it’s verboten. But it’s not impossible. They’re sitting there.  Cassie,  black hair and a blue coat, and a slender pretty brunette to her left in the fourth row of seats. Shoulder length hair and a headband. Preppy.  Christine. Wow. Wow. That girl is hot. Long hair. It’s cold in the gallery so she has her coat on, too. A quick wave to Cassie and it’s game four. I’ve got one eye on the brunette and one eye in the game. That’s not enough.  It’s not working. Game four at 11. Now it’s 2-all. The air is going out of the balloon. Scott takes over in the fifth. I’m trying to impress Cassie’s friend with hard hitting . Tins aren’t helping. Class tells, cream rises, and it’s the second seeds  prevail at 10 in the fifth.  Handshakes, a pat on the back, then duck down to avoid smashing your head in the little tunnel out of the court. Goddamn it. But this is going to be a good night. That girl looks delicious. THAAANK YOU SCOTT MY MAIN MAN. Time to shower up and head to Il Vagabondo. I’m Italian. I can play bocce, order Chianti and  turn on the charm.  Our Loss is  forgotten. What’s her last name? They’re waiting in The Stranger’s Room  off the lobby. Handshakes, through the revolving door, north on Park Avenue. It’s cold, but I don’t feel it.

Scene Three- Business, Crutches and Games

A snapped Achilles takes five to six months to heal. There’s just no way around it. Even if you have the best doctor (I did) and the best therapist (I do) and you attack the rehab like Berlitz (I am) it takes five months. For the first two months, it’s crutches and no weight bearing. Zero weight bearing. Inconvenient doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s every squash player’s worst nightmare. Yet it happens all the time. And thank God everybody comes back to 100%. It happened to Kobe this past April. It happened to Diehl Mateer in the national doubles  final. Yasser, Eiteljorg, Ryan, Vlcek, Curtis, Getz, Palmer Page, the list is endless. No it’s my turn. I’m missing squash. Badly.

But the show must go on , there’s money to be made,  and I’m the boss.

“Spend a few of your  bucks,  Carlo, if you can part with them. Get a black town car to drive you around, and get on with your life. No Whining. Nobody feels sorry for you , Carlo. You’ll be back soon enough. Anyway you represent The Over-Dog.”

Isn’t  The Dean of Doubles  understanding? He preaches the Gospel of Squash Doubles  and dispenses Tough Love, with the accent squarely on the Tough part. He knows me way too well to get a scintilla of sympathy.

The meeting  ends at 11:45. A quick Iphone call to my waiting driver and he’s in front of 48th and Park instantly. Groaning and cursing quietly I make it into the back seat.

“Thank you for the help, Bruce.”

Another quick call.

“I’m done. I’ll see you in front of the club in 3 minutes and 45 seconds.”

“ Great. I’m on the way, Dad. I”ll call Tom and ask him to open up the revolving door so you can crutch through.”

Naturally there are cars parked in front of Heritage so we double park . I crutch out. Up the three little stairs. Tom’s standing  there in his uniform,  and he’s opened the revolving door for me. I didn’t’ know that could be done- hey Thanks!  He’s done this before- a pro.

“Good to see you again, sir. Mr. Cattanzaro told me you’d be coming right over and alerted me to open the door.”

“ Thanks, Tom. I really appreciate it.”

“ You’re welcome, sir. I ruptured mine years ago playing basketball. I feel your pain!” We laugh.

Just then Nick walks into the lobby behind me.

“ Hi Dad. You Ok?”

“ Yes. Tom is the consummate professional.”

“ Thanks, Tom. I really appreciate it.”

“ You’re welcome Mr. Cattanzaro.”

Tom puts a white pin next to Nick’s  name on the  board with all the names of the members. He’s “Mr. Cattanzaro” here. He’s been in today.

We take the elevator to the Second floor. There’s no small talk.

Tell me about your deals, kid. Kid? He’s not a kid. He’s a young man.

We’re seated in the dining room. As close as possible to the door. That’ll minimize my crutching around.

Now you  tell me about Your deals, Dad.

Back and forth. Questions. Answers. Suggestions.

Christ he looks good. Pinstripe suit, blue and red club tie, white shirt, haircut, Pepsodent smile.

He writes our order on the chit , collected by the waiter.

Great rolls. Honestly they are better than the popovers at the Harvard Club.

The soup comes. Senegalese for me, gazpacho for Nick. Best soups in the city.

Now it’s time to drill down and give him the third degree, as subtly as possible.
“How’s Diana?”

“ She’s great. The girl is easy to date. She’s not annoying.  I like her. She’s smart. And she’s easy to look at. And she smells good.”

“Don’t screw it up, Romeo. You been playing much?”

“Yeah-  in fact I’m playing with Will tonight against the number one team from Union in the league finals. We should win that. How’s your rehab coming?”

“ One day at a time – making slow steady progress. Labor day. Physio 3x a week, religiously. I’m working it.”

“ Great. How’s Donna?  Are we having Father’s Day dinner at the club or at your house?”

“At the club. There’s a big  buffet. You’ll like it. I’ll pick you  and your sister up at the train. By the way, Einstein,  I assume you have figured out that Donna and Diana are a hell of a lot alike.”

“Yeah. They are both calm, rational and classy , not like us!”  Loud Laughter.

“ How’s your mom?”

“Good. She and Arthur  are in England visiting his mom for a few days. Then they’re heading up to Scotland . He’s playing St. Andrews, Muirfield and one other place which I can’t remember.  Maybe Troon. I really have no idea.”

“Good. I assume you know that the first time…”  He interrupts me  and spits it out fast.

“YesDadyoudon’tneedtoremindme. I’ve heard it a hundred times. Frank Shaughnessy must have been in the men’s room when they sauntered through the lobby.” He inhales, and we both smile.

We hug at the curb and he walks north on Park Avenue. It’s cold, but he doesn’t feel it.

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