Featured Prose | July 17, 2018

Andrew De Silva grew up in suburban Detroit and lives in Los Angeles, where he is an associate professor teaching writing and critical reasoning at the University of Southern California. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and studied fiction at USC. This story took form while he was attending the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. “Coach Schwartz, is his first published fiction and was a finalist in the 2017 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest. You can read TMR intern Oliver Getch’s interview with Andrew here.

 

Coach Schwartz

by Andrew De Silva

 

He’d put on a little weight, yes, but this was always going to be a sugar-cereal household. Any single-uncle guardian who didn’t stock the cabinets with unhealthy shit was a Puritan and didn’t understand his circumstances.

Ryan scooped the milk from the bottom of his bowl, an odd sodden fragment of Frosted Flake floating across the spoon. Thump stayed evergreen skinny anyway. Like sometimes he worried that people would call the authorities on him.

“Why are those bushes out front?” Thump said, working on her Fruit Loops.

“Beautify the yard,” he said. “The pursuit of beauty.”

“Don’t think it’ll help.”

True, wise, cheeky preteen. The yard was doomed. But this was a ranch house in a neighborhood. This is what people did, what people were supposed to do with the yards in front of their ranch houses in late March if they wanted to look the part. When he’d checked online, there had been twelve nursery and/or landscape supply pins besieging his map in the little Yelp window.

“You gonna delay the match for me?” she asked. She hated missing the beginnings.

“It’s forty-seven degrees,” he said. “Cold arms, double faults, boring tennis early.”

Skinny Thump finished her Loops, dubious but resigned. She could give a look just like Dan. That’s how genes worked, he figured, but it was still unsettling to see the father in the daughter so clearly. A vector so easy to trace. In the next ten minutes she cleared and rinsed her bowl, brushed her teeth, and pedaled to fifth grade like a good niece.

***

By 9:30 am all the elementary kids had cleared and commuters were gone from their driveways and Ryan Schwartz, unpaid assistant boys’ tennis coach at North Arlington High School, walked three blocks to Kelly Thurman’s house to carry out their lazy-ass affair. Today it commenced on her dining room table, which he never liked because it was flat and hard and bruised the knobs of his hips. Kelly and the husband were separated, so it wasn’t real adultery and Ryan wasn’t a real home-wrecker; they went through the motions of being torrid but he suspected they would both prefer the safe old bed. When it was over, they microwaved pizza rolls from the freezer, dosed two 5-mg Percocets each, and washed them down with merlot. From deep within the sofa, they watched YouTube videos for hours.

Thump never got As and had behavioral problems. She’d already had two cavities. Their yard was ugly, and all the neighbors whispered.

He left Kelly’s house sometime before 2, jogged home, and showered himself back into the active world. When he’d done his brother right and reclaimed Thump and it became clear his guardian duties would outlive the month, he’d withdrawn some prize money to buy a used pickup. Nothing jacked or fancy, just a little Dodge Dakota. He tossed his gear bag into the bed—he liked to coach with a racquet in his hand, like he could be called up to play in a jam—and sped to the high school.

The pills were still in his system and he felt at peace. Relaxed. A leaf floating on a goodwill breeze. It was the only way he could coach; otherwise he was relentless and pacing, wearing a rut along the courts’ fence like a bull elephant in captivity that had gone mad with the limitations of its space. He made the kids nervous, Coach T. said. Take it down a notch, Coach T. said, his puffy, freckled ankles casually dead-ending in his boat shoes.

In the athletic shed, Ryan dug out two hoppers of balls for warm-ups and six new cans for the matches. The courts were built on a berm that rose six feet above the parking lot. He climbed the berm’s yellow, winter-dead grass and swept the courts and squeegeed the damp patches left by Sunday’s rain, then took his tape measure to the nets, cranking the tension on listless court four until it was three feet in the center and three and a half at the posts. Two-fourteen pm. School let out in six minutes and already the parking lot was humming with departures. Ryan lay down, facing the sky, on the center service line of the third court in the five-court row. The absolute middle, which pleased his sense of symmetry. The clouds were low and gray and overlapping, so he could find no shapes in them, but the great sheet of concrete beneath him had absorbed some of the day’s heat and the court radiated this heat through Ryan’s North Arlington hoodie. He felt like a medium. A phase. A thing through which more elemental things could pass.

Had he missed the game?

Only on Percs could he pose that question.

Sure, but.

It was 2007, and he was twenty-five. All this meant was fewer miles on the legs and a longer run once he returned to the tour. Plus the better question, the one he could ask anytime, anytime he was on the Verge and needed to be jerked back into the Real: Could he leave his brother’s daughter to the wolves?

Their aunt, their mother’s sister, was the natural caretaker, with two sons of her own and maybe not a wolf, maybe just a plump, hypocritical Catholic badger. But Dan hadn’t wanted her anywhere near. When famine comes, the badger is the same as the wolf is the same as the rabbit, feeding her kids first.

***

School let out with a shrill bell and the high school disgorged its teenagers to buses, to practices, to the beater cars they’d bought with money from their jobs at the Dairy Queen or the mall.

Ryan got up from the court and moved to the fence. Dismissal broke the afternoon’s quiet but he found it fascinating, the exodus. He’d never had a high school experience. Six hours of tennis and cardio and weights per day at the academy was high school like home school was high school or getting a GED in prison was high school.

He spotted his kids cutting behind the baseball field and up the berm. Most didn’t have gear bags. Most had only one racquet, the prestrung kind they probably bought at Target. They weren’t poor—they just didn’t know any better. The district didn’t pull tennis-club kids who played USTA tournaments and got court time indoors in the winter. That was upper-middle class and this was middle-middle. These kids were just athletes—soccer players, a couple of football and hockey players—who’d messed around in the public parks growing up and were keen on Ryan’s pitch when he scouted them through fall and winter in their primary sports, this kinda-famous-a-few-years-ago tennis player somehow delivered to bumfuck suburban Chicago. Yeah, we’ll play, they said. They didn’t even serve with a continental grip. Ryan loved them. He loved the way they called each other by their last names and the way they thought they’d never die.

Coach T. trailed the boys with a clipboard tucked under his arm, biting into a pear. The much-loved wino taught AP government and had led thirty years of mediocre teams at NAHS, mostly because he didn’t know a thing about tennis. Until Ryan taught Paul Deno and Justin Ferguson, the top scorers on the hockey team, to channel their soft hands into reflex volleys. Until Ryan pulled Teku Sakaguchi off the JV squad because he might have been a five-foot freshman but the kid was fast and never missed. Teku was 4-1 this season; Paul and Justin were 5-0 at #3 dubs, and the team had never had a better record going into April.

***

Coach welcomed Arlington Central to North and gave his spiel on sportsmanship. The team captains introduced their lineups, opponents shaking hands and taking their two-ball distribution from Assistant Coach Schwartz before scattering to their designated courts.

One of the Central kids, a cocksure little shit with two diamonds in each ear, gave Ryan a knowing thrust of the chin as he took the balls and paused a little too long before pulling his hand away. “Thanks, Blood.”

All the trigger he needed for the Verge, hitting a trough in the Perc’s sine wave and feeling the grotesque urge to play this kid, to hit the ball so hard it would rip through the kid’s string bed and his body and leave a smoking tennis-ball-shaped hole in his stomach. To hit something hard again, in one place and then another place far away from the original place. To advance through a bracket. The fangirls and their sun-kissed freckles.

“Hey, Coach Schwartz,” a kid said, a nice-looking kid with a nice-looking face. The Central captain.

“Hey,” Ryan said.

“I know you’re our enemy and all, at least today. But we were thinking it would be cool to take a picture. After.”

“Sure,” Ryan said, crushing a final booster Perc in his teeth and swallowing the bitter powder. It acted faster when it was pulverized. “Good luck out there.”

***

Back in late winter 2003, Blood Schwartz received a phone call from an unknown number originating in Cook County, Illinois. He’d just played a fourth-round match at the Australian Open, the momentum of his breakthrough summer carrying through, losing in four tough sets to the Moroccan veteran Younes El Aynaouie on a day that reached 110 on court. The analysts were encouraged; McEnroe sang his praises. He stayed in Australia for a few weeks to surf, to go drinking with the good-natured locals, to ditch the Internet and sleep on the beach and be fully, beautifully, twenty years old.

He had no numbers programmed into his international phone so didn’t think much of the message. It was probably Dan wanting to shoot the shit, dip into his little brother’s exciting life and escape for a moment from his own: making lunches for a kindergarten girl and giving foot massages to a wife pregnant with their son. So Blood kept surfing and drinking and getting lost in a girl named Abbie Robson, a beach volleyball player who years later made alternate for the Olympic team. He decided to grow his hair out like Patrick Rafter.

But after three voice mails from the same number on three consecutive days, he listened. His sister-in-law was dead. Car accident. Not even a drunk driver to blame. Just everyday distraction and the grim physics of collapsed steel and fragile human bodies. Just a trip to the drugstore, one stoplight from their home, the seatbelt bothering her third-trimester belly and unbuckled this one time. Ryan left Abbie and the beach without a note, hitched a ride back into Melbourne and scrambled for a flight to O’Hare. He was worried. Dan did not handle loss well.

The fourth call vibrated while he waited in the international terminal eating the butt end of a sub. The sandwich was overdressed and soggy; he craned over its wrapper to avoid dripping on his pants and only barely fished the phone out in time. A different number, but still Illinois.

“Ryan, honey, it’s Aunt Charlotte. Honey, are you on your way?”

“About to board. Nonstop.”

“Good. We need you here. We’ve … we’ve added trouble to trouble today.”

“Dan?”

“He’s gone, honey. We can’t find him anywhere.”

***

He had seventy-two hours before the funeral to find his brother. He took a cab straight from the airport into the city and began to canvass every shitty hard-luck bar, hoping that Dan was sticking to alcohol this time. He hit the Irish bars and the hockey bars, his tennis bag still on his shoulder, ostentatious. Men stayed tight-lipped and stared into their whiskeys. For this mission, in these places, you did not want to stand out.

It was fucking freezing out, February, and all his clothes were meant for the wrong hemisphere. He hustled into a store before it closed and bought a Blackhawks parka and work boots, then dropped his bag in a locker at Union Station to search the railroad bars. Dan wouldn’t be watching hockey. If he’d truly shut himself down he wouldn’t be in a buzzing place, animated by something as trivial as sport.

Only four months ago, on Ryan’s birthday, Dan had taken him on a bawdy crawl through the city. Tonight Ryan was guided by flashback, by the sober recall of a drunken pathway. Dooley’s and Keith’s, the Varnish and the Queen Anne, no need to show ID if you had a whisker on your chin.

“Have you seen my brother? Dan Schwartz?” he asked the bartenders. Back then, phones could hold photos, but only shitty quality. He showed them a picture: “Like me, but shorter hair and fewer teeth.”

“Danny Schwartz!” said the old man at the Varnish, ruddy and bigcheeked. Only serious drinkers’ bars had bartenders over forty. Ryan felt his first ping of hope. “You’re his brotha? The tennis player? I love you. I saw the Open. I love you. Of course you’re Danny’s brotha, bleeding through your shirt against the German. You play tennis like a fucking hockey player, Danny’s brotha.”

“Have you seen him? I need to talk to him.”

“Not in a week. Maybe two. But take a drink, Danny’s brotha. What’s your nickname? What’s his nickname?” he said, loud and intended for the bar. People turned.

“Blood,” said a man picking the label from his Schlitz.

“Blood. Bloody right,” the old bartender said, and he fixed a glass with ice and three ounces of Canadian Club. Ryan politely declined and headed back into the frosted dark.

***

Their parents called them his “blue spells,” back when Dan was a junior or so in high school and they began to come on with adult force. He was a depressive, is what he was, but they were too stoic a family to truck with mental health. Big Lou Schwartz was an old-school hustling urban-American Jew, descendant of rumrunners and raised in boxing gyms, a big, tough man who spent his life pushing his sons toward the impossible destinies he dreamed up in his head. A man who sold his car in 1995 and started walking to work, using the cash to pay for Ryan’s academy in Florida. Turned it into a lecture on opportunity cost. Then the health insurance went, two hundred more bucks a month freed up because they were a hardy bunch. Pennywise and pound foolish, that one. Mom was southside Irish; theirs was a real Chicago love story. She justified the austerity when her sons were around, when she felt needed driving them to practices and making them milkshakes to console them after losses. But once they left home for elite training, she started drinking. What she’d needed was a job or a daughter, money for new drapes, a budget cruise with her husband to Ensenada, but Lou Schwartz was not the kind of man to grant her any of those things. The family welcomed the divorce, but Dan the most. Mom had one tough but rewarding year as a single woman in her midforties and three fine years remarried to an accountant from Evanston, babysitting her granddaughter, Thump, cruising the Great Lakes and every winter the Caribbean before a long-undiagnosed ovarian tumor got her.

Her death cracked Dan up big time. He raged against the old man. Left his family for two nights at a time, came back sallow and gaunt. Scary thing was, he was mixing pain pills with the booze. Hockey hadn’t been good for a depressive; the concussive hits and subconcussive hits rechanneled his mind’s folds, pooling the precious chemicals of joy and perspective in the wrong places, into the dead ends and blind alleys. And for all the other masculine pains associated with the game—broken foot and sports hernia and skate blade across the calf, torn rotator cuff and bruised ribs and puck-cracked orbital bone—the doctors prescribed opioids. Dan was no classic addict but he didn’t keep a cautious distance, and the relationship lingered beyond his own minor-league career because the pain lingered too. Years later, with Ryan out searching for him on a bitter cold night in the wake of his wife’s death, these were the kinds of angles his little brother needed to pursue.

***

After last call at the 2 am bars he sought the 4 am bars. Sad places, on a Tuesday. A few college kids out, a tourist or conventioneer who’d let the night get away from him, but mostly the type of middle-aged person drinking to erase the conditions of his adulthood. A few of these drunks from these bars scattered across the vast city would probably die tonight—forgetting their gloves, forgetting how to get home, settling against brick walls or across park benches and fooled into thinking their whiskey was a coat.

Ryan asked around and received head nods and generalized recognition but no lead on the actual location of his brother. He was exhausted from jet lag and sadness—he loved Dan and Nell and Thump and would have loved her unnamed brother and taught him how to chip a half volley off his shoe tops so that tennis always seemed a more appealing option than hockey, and now the family was dissolved in an instant: a fragile, lovely snowflake landed on a cruel tongue. He was just so bone-tired and sad, he couldn’t think of a next move or even how to get to the warm bed at Aunt Charlotte’s with the crucifix on the wall, and he circled back to the Varnish to collect on his free drink. The ruddy bartender raised his eyebrows when Ryan returned, pointed to the bar’s corner.

Dan.

Ryan held back, watched his brother punch a code into the jukebox and then bury himself deeper into the corner. Standing, facing the wall, eyes closed. Dan, looking a ghost. The disc clicked and spun “Down in a Hole” from the Alice in Chains album that had been his favorite back in high school. For a moment Dan returned to the room, staring at the bartender and jutting his chin in the air. He wanted it louder. The bartender looked around; there were three people here, one of them Ryan, the other passed out in a booth. He reached behind the bar and the song’s volume kicked. Dan, satisfied, returned to his catatonia. The guitars were heavy with dread, so loud, and Ryan realized that his brother was positioned deliberately so his right ear was cupped to the bar’s speaker.

Ryan went to him, put a gentle hand on Dan’s shoulder. Dan spoke without opening his eyes.

“Hey, brother. Try it. When it’s loud enough, it fills you up, and nothing else can fit.”

Ryan brought him home, and at noon on Wednesday, Dan came out of his room clean-shaven. He took Thump skating at the outdoor rink in Millennium Park. That night he disappeared again, and no one had seen him since.

***

Thump loved the high school format—four doubles matches and four singles matches played at the same time—and when she pedaled from school and grabbed her clipboard from Ryan’s bag, she took over his mantle as designated pacer, roving the fence and peeking through windscreens, tallying the ebbs and flows, the triumphant or dejected flip of the scorecards on the changeovers as each player contributed his piece to the unknown whole.

“Thump!” bellowed Justin Ferguson, spotting her between points. “For you,” he said, flashing a signal to Deno. Deno backpedaled from his conventional doubles starting position at net, back all the way to the baseline. He winked at Thump. Ferguson served, and in the best tactical innovation of their season, both rushed forward together. Thump loved it. Ryan loved it. Those two big dopes in their running shoes and cheap racquets loved it, almost four hundred pounds of chipped-tooth senior hockey forward charging together on a March day so cold you could see steam come off their hair. The poor kid returning the serve panicked at the wrath bearing down and swung too hard. Ferg and Deno won most of their points on balls they let fly past, landing two or five feet long, so that’s what Ryan drilled them on in practice: when to hit and when to leave. How, in the microsecond available to them, they had to judge pace, sure, but also swing type and spin to determine a ball’s trajectory.

This particular ball hit the damn fence and Thump fist-pumped to the clouds. She made her tally—bash brothers up 5-2, 30-love—and moved to a court less securely in North’s fold. Ryan sat on the bleachers with a pair of binoculars, observing from within his velvet fog. No anxious pacing. No fearsome elephant. All the jocular boys were free to be jocular and take his coaching through his string-bean instrument, Thump Schwartz. She checked in, and Ryan dispatched her to court one, to tell (Ethan) Sanders to junkball against the tall stiff dude with the big strokes who liked everything to sit up in his strike zone: just chop and spin and dink it for the first few balls in the rally. Then to court six, #2 dubs, where (Will) Bartley and (Austin) McNab should hit every single ball to the weaker player, the poor kid in the gray-bottomed gym socks whose gray heels were distended and bunched up flaccid at his ankles. The strategy would be obvious, but that was the point, Socks breaking down as his errors compounded and the better partner, who was hitting no balls, either exploding at Socks and hastening the demise or playing hero-ball when he finally did get a stroke, aiming for the impossible and missing. Or (likely) both.

Run off to court two, Thump, and now to court eight, as the scorecards flip and service games are broken. Back to court one, Thump, and bring the Gatorade to court four, then to six to see Ferg and Deno get the handshake and join you making the rounds, clapping for their boys Sanders and Bartley and “Handbag,” their own associative nickname for Teku “Gucci” Sakaguchi, which might sound dismissive but really came from that place of beautiful avuncular first-world senior-to-frosh joi de fucking vivre. Soak it in, Thump, because not everyone gets this experience, high school tennis in the Midwest on the coldest day of spring, with no external stakes, no coaches scouting for scholarship athletes, the only fans some parents and the clumps of girls who drift over from varsity soccer practice to scope the boys they have crushes on. The good, average boys who adopt you as mascot. The pizza later tonight, and the television. The dog we might get when you’re twelve. Soak it in, because this way of living is no worse than all the others out there and might even be better, right?

***

Before the drizzle halted play, North Arlington clinched their fifth of the eight matches and won the dual. The JV kids and Thump grabbed the scorecards from the nets and shagged the match-worn balls for the practice hoppers. Coach thanked the team from Central and spitballed makeup dates for the unfinished matches; their scores were necessary to determine seeding in the conference tournament.

As their school bus circled into the lot, the Central captain called for his photograph, and Ryan, feeling happy and loose-limbed, enjoying the contrast between his warm body and the cold drops of rain, asked if anyone wanted to try to return his serve. The kids lit up. Coach T. scuffed his toe on the court, testing its slip factor. He shrugged. The Central coach smiled and shrugged back. “Just a return of serve.”

So Ryan took three new balls to one side of the court and a line formed on the other, Central and North players, and they cycled through as Ryan unleashed the repertoire. For the short kids he went for the big kicker that bounced over their heads. Sick, someone said, in the chattering buzzing line. The #1 singles player for Central came up—earring boy, the best player on the court that day—and the buzz grew, his boys talking him up, the kid jumping around, keeping his feet loose, getting into his receiving crouch. Ryan popped it a hundred and thirty flat down the tee and the kid lunged, making contact on his backhand, but the ball ricocheted onto the next court. Ryan tipped a finger from his forehead; the kid tipped back. The next set of kids changed tactics and stood far, far back, almost to the fence, hoping to buy more time. Ryan aced them all with slices out wide.

“When you get too far back, you can’t cut off the angle,” he told them. “Always be moving forward, just a little creeper step as I toss the ball. Split step when I make contact and get ready to explode in either direction.”

The Central kids got their coach to try. Ryan took some heat off and the guy made good contact but netted the return, then held up his racquet like a prizefighter with his belt. Cheers, mock and real. Coach T. refused, but Thump made a go. “Don’t hurt me,” she said, “or I can make your life real annoying.” Laughter. Photos. The soccer girls came back and borrowed racquets from their boys and buried their athleticism and acted all pigeon-toed clumsy as they swung and missed. Finally big Justin Ferguson asked for a second go, and Ryan went body on him and Ferg got his racquet square and deflected it back, a dink of a return but one that landed in the bounds of the court. Everyone whooped and clapped and Ferg did a goal-scorer’s windmill with his arm and the rain picked up and everyone returned to their buses and cars, the North boys making plans to meet up later, everyone secure in their powers, warm live things capable of movement, capable of becoming what they were meant to be.

Ryan hoisted Thump’s bicycle into the truck bed. It was big, like an adult bike. She seemed to be at an age where kids’ shoes and bicycles presaged their larger forms. He threw his gear bag next to it. A little rain wouldn’t hurt—and when he started playing again, his sponsor would send a new one. Maybe this summer. If Thump went to camp, he could squeeze in two North American hard court tourneys, and if he did okay, the USTA might be encouraged enough to give a wild card for the Open. Someone would take her out to New York if that happened. Maybe the team would come, too—Coach T. and the boys.

***

When they got home, he sent purple-lipped Thump to shower and, with the last cozy drip of Perc draining through him, slid on his gardening clogs and went out into the dusky yard.

Fuck-buddy Kelly Thurman had been the one to tell him. “It’s grim,” she said. “We all think so. Like an old widow lives there, or an addict.”

The spring thaw made it even more apparent: the dead grass, the plastic shit Thump had left on the lawn in November, the gray tennis balls that had escaped from one of her hitting sessions against the garage. No trees, flowers, or intent to design. His focus had always been on the more morally significant life-force he’d inherited here. He rolled up the garage door—the automatic opener hadn’t worked in years—and in the half light combed through the tools. A rake. A snow shovel. No, he needed, like, a spade-shovel. A shovel shovel. Lengths of PVC pipe, a fishing pole. Behind the pipes, a basket filled with ancient Indian corn and the desiccated knobs of miniature pumpkins. His foot prodded the corn and the husks disintegrated.

Ryan found the shovel leaning against a beam, tucked behind Dan’s old hockey sticks. Christ. These things. His hand hovered, touched one, gripped it solid, the Verge and the Real all hopelessly blurred. Big brother’s sticks: in the corner of their shared room by the Roenick cutout and scattered on the driveway; stuck lengthwise in Mom’s sedan until the blades kissed the windshield, driving to some tournament in Wisconsin. Ryan once again went transparent. A medium. An intake for all stimuli at once, an entire man turned into a pore. He felt the sting of his knuckles wrapped around the wooden shaft, the sound of Thump’s shower turning off and the water heater shutting down, the wane of the painkiller in his brainblood as he moved into thorny withdrawal, the heat of his muscles, the smell of a gunmetal spring night, earthworms, and rain. He carried the hockey stick out to the yard. The mist damped his cheeks. He could see his breath. A car drove by that needed to turn on its lights. Nobody else was outside.

Ryan cocked the stick and charged the first gray tennis ball he saw, smacking a slap shot over the sidewalk and into the street, the ball’s dead soggy bounce petering at the opposing curb. He launched another, then another, clearing the dead things off his yard, his contact more true and now the balls shooting into the neighbor’s lawn, off the mailbox, down the street perpendicular to theirs, rolling out of sight and swallowed by the dim. His feet slipped out of the gardening clogs and he carried on in sopping tube socks, every slapshot tearing a chunk of turf until the yard looked liked a lunatic driving range, gashed and bloodied with dirt, and even with the last ball cleared he kept on slashing, kept on, kept on.

He would buy sod tomorrow.

 

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