POST RADICAL TRISTE
For the first time in my life my body was getting flabby. The constant late-night partying and smoking dope was really taking a toll on my mental and physical condition. I showed Steve the growing roll of flesh around my waist and told him how annoying it was.
"I have a simple solution," he said.
"Let's start our tennis training and conditioning again."
I groaned. "It might kill me."
"That's a funny thing for the mad bomber to say."
"Don't even joke about that."
"Why not? There's nobody here but us potbellies."
"I don't expect sympathy from an insensitive lout like you, but a little understanding would help."
"Poor softy. Tomorrow morning we'll go for a run and see what kind of shape you're in. Then we'll go to the public tennis courts on Houston, hit some balls and find out if you can survive a training program."
I thought he was kidding about the public courts so I let it pass and asked about my real concern. "What about the party tonight? Should we cancel it?"
"Absolutely not. It'll be wild. Leland invited a jazz group that he used to play with years ago, until they replaced him with Bud Powell."
"What's a Bud Powell?" I asked blankly.
"Lord Randall, you are an ill-bred, ill-educated, ill-mannered oaf."
I corrected the barbarian. "I'm certainly not ill bred and you didn't answer the question."
"He's one of the all time jazz greats. Wait'll you hear him. He has a pure, classically derived sound that combines the best of club and conservatory."
"Spare me music appreciation 101. How do you expect to get up in the morning and run and play tennis, if we party all night?"
"I can do it," Steve said smugly. "Can you?"
"I'll try," I said.
"Good. If we enjoy ourselves and you don't have cardiac arrest, we can cut back on parties, set a regular schedule and gradually bring you back to fitness. I'm ready to get back in shape. We can even try to figure out what you'll be when you grow up."
"What about you? Ex-Marine, ex-tennis bum, ex-party animal."
Steve posed nobly and said with exaggerated solemnity: "I am on the road to my destiny."
"I wish your sense of humor would grow up. I should get a medal for enduring it for twenty years."
"Don't quibble. It's petty. Learn to have a little dignity."
Steve grinned. "We sound like old marrieds."
"My decayed condition doesn't give you the right to insult me," I said. "That's not how I think of our friendship."
The next morning an implacable hand shook me awake. I had only slept for three hours and I was creaky and sullen. Steve ignored my resistance, got me up, dressed, and out the door. Joyce sleepily declined an invitation to join us. It was a little after dawn. The Lower East Side streets were filthy. There was a serene stillness before the morning rush to work, to school, to the welfare office, to drug use, to destruction. The slum was poised to devour its residents. We trotted along at a steady pace, slowly falling into the rhythm of running. Steve carried our tennis gear, slung on his back, in the same bag that he used years ago. After a few blocks I thought every bone of mine would collapse, every muscle tear. We passed a public housing development, silent at the moment, as the residents still reposed in dreams or nightmares, the very bricks worn down from battles for survival. Fortunately, old running habits emerged before I collapsed. I stopped struggling against myself and fell into the controlled pace that we used when we ran as kids. My mind stopped resisting my body and my anxieties melted away.
We crossed a footbridge over the FDR, turned south and followed the esplanade along the East River, another blighted waterway polluted by the uncaring hand of man. The oily river flowed past us, dotted with enough debris to stock a junkyard. As I ran, I saw the current carry auto tires, flotsam, plastic bottles, jetsam, a dead and bloated cat, and unidentifiable green slime to the sea. There was enough detritus to discourage the millions of years of evolution that made clean water. Steve suddenly pulled up.
"Stop, you pathetic specimen."
I paused, panting moderately. "What's the matter?"
"We've run about a mile and a half."
"It feels great. Let's go on."
"That's enough for the first time out."
"I could go another mile," I said.
"And you'd pay for it tomorrow. Save some of that energy for tennis."
We went to the public courts under the Williamsburg Bridge. The noise from pre-rush hour traffic was horrendous. Soot, fumes, cigarette butts and discarded coffee containers drifted down, courtesy of ill-trained motorists, to adorn the players. The courts weren't open yet, but a hole in the fence was big enough for us to squeeze through. We stood there surveying the sporting facility. The asphalt courts were a mess, somewhere between a parking lot and a battlefield. The nets were so shredded that a lemming migration could pass through without disturbing the cord, the baselines almost invisible and the playing surface pocked and uneven. I found it hard to believe that people played tennis on courts like this.
I turned to Steve. "Do you really want to play on this moonscape?"
"It may not be ideal, my snobby friend, but we can hardly go to a club where your bloated face might be known."
"I didn't think of that."
"You've never been very good at considering the consequences of your actions," he said portentously.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"We better not get into a discussion now, or we won't get to play tennis."
"Something is really bothering you, isn't it?"
"Nothing more than the usual life crisis questions. Where are we going? What should we be doing?"
"It's more than that."
"We'll talk later. Right now let's see if you remember how to hit a ball with that spaghetti strainer."
"I can still take you two out of three," I said.
He laughed. "You'll be lucky if you get the ball in the court."
We started to hit the ball back and forth. It was like coming home. All my years of training came back and we kept the ball moving in long, effortless rallies. After about twenty minutes I worked my way to the net, hit some volleys and medium paced overheads, then let Steve practice at the net.
"Ready for a set, Pappy?" I asked.
"You're really feeling your oats, aren't you, Junior?"
"I can whip your butt."
"It's nice to hear you eager to play again."
"It's been too long. Let's make a pact that we always stay in condition and play tennis regularly."
"Agreed. I'll beat you in the sixty-five's and over."
"Not likely. You'll probably meet doddering Andy Klassen in the semis and he'll dribble on the court, you'll slip, dislocate your big mouth, and default the match."
"You are always reassuring, Lord Randall. Let's hit some serves and call it a day."
"When did you buy new tennis balls?"
"The day after you moved in."
I was surprised. "Then you planned this all along?"
"Yes, Junior. Someone's got to save you from becoming a beached whale."
I felt his love and concern. "Thanks, Steve."
We finished hitting, packed our gear, and turned to go. A park attendant was unlocking the gate. "You're not allowed in there when it's closed."
"Sorry," Steve said." We just came in to play for a while before we went to work."
"Let me see your permits," he demanded.
"We don't have one," Steve answered.
"If you want to play here you have to get a permit."
"All right. We'll get it for next time. What do we have to do?"
"You don't get it here. You have to go to the Arsenal, fill out an application and pay a fee."
"That sounds simple enough. Where's the arsenal?"
"In Central Park. In the zoo."
"What's your name?"
"Walter. I'm in charge of the courts."
"Walter. My name's Steve. This is Carl." Steve handed Walter some money. "This is for your trouble. We'll see you another time. So long."
As we walked away and headed for home Walter was putting a bill in his pocket. I was surprised at how easily Steve dealt with him. I guess something showed on my face, because Steve asked: "Why are you looking at me so strangely?"
"How much money did you give him?"
"You bribed a public official," I said accusingly.
"Not true. I tipped a tennis court attendant for future service."
"That's degrading and exploitative."
"You're right, Commissar," Steve said. "Next time you can have him arrested for violation of the public trust and sent to the gulag."
"That's where you'll end up. Why did you give him money?"
"So when we come back we can play when we want without a hassle."
"You are a corrupting influence."
He pleasantly nodded agreement. "It took you long enough to find out."
We walked home through the busy streets. Adults were heading for buses and subways, worried about getting to work on time. Children moved in flocks, babbling and playing games, not in a hurry to get to school. The neighborhood seemed warmer, more human when people were purposefully moving through it. When we got to our building and went upstairs, Joyce greeted us with the bad news.
"There's no water."
"What happened?" Steve said.
"I don't know. I got up a little while ago to make coffee and there was no water."
"Did you try the bathtub?"
"Did you ask Eddie when it'll be back on?"
She shook her head no. "I don't talk to that man."
"I'll find out," he said.
Steve went downstairs and knocked on the super's door. We could hear Eddie bellowing at him through the door.
"Whatta you want?"
"It's Steve, from upstairs."
"Beat it, you creep."
"I just want to know when the water will be back on."
Eddie laughed. "Dirty hippies don't need water."
"Do I have to complain to the landlord?"
"I don't care what you do. Complain to whoever you want. Just don't bother me. Now beat it, before I call the cops."
Steve came back upstairs.
"Captain Hooks was his normal, obnoxious self."
"We heard," I said.
"I don't know why you waste time talking to that man," Joyce said.
"Steve practices his limited social skills on him," I said.
"Very funny. I'll get a bottle of water from the store. Don't flush the toilet. I'll also get some disinfectant, in case the water doesn't come on right away. Ah, the pleasures of la vie bohème. Do you think you can endure these deprivations, Carl?"
"I'll try. But it's tough being a hippie."