by Ashton Politanoff
Stewart was currently ranked 52 in the world, his highest ranking yet. At twenty-nine, this was his year. Everyone knew that when tennis players turned thirty, it was all downhill, unless you were Agassi.
It happened on the practice court. He tossed the yellow ball up in the air, fuzzy from the heat, and whacked it. Immediately, he felt the shooting pain. He tried to shake it out, dropping the racquet on the baseline and dangling his arm like cooked spaghetti. Then he tried another serve but couldn’t even swing the racquet all the way through. He was done.
At the Mexican restaurant that spilled onto the boardwalk, the hostess asked Stewart and his buddy Eric where they wanted to sit.
Outside, Stewart said. This isn’t a date, he said.
Stewart and Eric followed the hostess to their table. They sat down in green plastic chairs and looked at their menus. Stewart rubbed his bad shoulder.
So when’s the surgery?
Stewart removed his hand.
Tuesday, Stewart said. He looked around. On the boardwalk, pier rats sat on benches, skateboards under their feet.
I want to get it done as soon as possible. Get on that road to recovery.
Eric’s hair was slicked back. He looked like a broker. He was a broker.
How long’s recovery?
Around six months, which works out perfectly. My ranking will be protected for those six months.
Good, Eric said. Good.
I figure I’ll be hungry for it then, Stewart said.
A waiter came for their drink order. The waiter recommended the margarita. Eric went with the marg. Stewart requested lemon water.
Now, did you tear it all the way through, or is it hanging by a thread?
Partial tear, Stewart said.
Do you have to wear a sling?
Stewart scooted his chair back. A waiter nudged past, so Stewart scooted back in.
Only the first two months.
That’s not bad, Eric said.
I got it all worked out.
Yeah, Stewart said. The pavement of the boardwalk sparkled in the low sun. Across the boardwalk, Stewart spotted a pack of girls entering a bar.
I figure I can play the sympathy card, Stewart said. You know, see them at a bar, whatever.
Eric leaned back in his chair and laughed.
And the best part about it is I won’t have to do any work. I can just let them ride on top.
After dinner, they walked past the restaurants and bars. At one of the restaurants, in the outdoor seating area, a girl was giving another girl a neck massage.
God, that looks good right now, Stewart said to the girl giving.
My hands are for her only, she said.
I wasn’t asking, Stewart said.
A couple days before the surgery, Stewart went to the pharmacy to pick up pain medication. He was in line, in the back. A girl was in front of him in gym shorts.
You don’t look sick, he said to her.
She looked at Stewart. You don’t either, she said.
I’m not, Stewart said. I’m getting painkillers. Surgery next week.
Fun, she said. Me too. What kind?
Shoulder surgery. You?
Boobs, she said. A couple people in lined turned.
It comes with the territory, she said. I just signed with Vivid Entertainment.
Nice, Stewart said. What’s your name?
She gave it to him in full.
At home, Stewart found her on the computer. He called his buddy Eric.
I met a girl and saw her naked five minutes later, he said.
The night before his surgery, he went on a date. Her name was Yvette and when she arrived at the restaurant, Stewart didn’t notice the dog with her until she sat down across from him in the booth. The dog’s orange head stuck out of her purse.
That’s Lola, my Pomeranian, Yvette said. She has suicidal tendencies so I have to bring her everywhere.
Plus, if Lola doesn’t like you, I don’t like you.
Hi, Lola, Stewart said.
Yvette had a diamond nose ring. She was blonde but her eyebrows were dark. Stewart had met her in the gym. He saw her there often. She always used the stair master, two steps at a time.
We probably can’t bring Lola to a bar, Stewart said.
Who said we were going anywhere after? Yvette asked.
During dinner, he learned many things about Yvette. Her eyes were blue or green depending on what she wore. Her brother delivered pizza. Last year, when she got in a car wreck, her father bought her a new Range Rover. Her first boyfriend was a fugitive, fleeing cross-country by train. Her second boyfriend had a weird “sex face” so she broke up with him and her third boyfriend installed stripper poles for a living. She was still friends with the third. In fact, he had dropped her off at the restaurant. After a few glasses of Chardonnay, she told Stewart that she never wore underwear.
When the bill arrived, Stewart noticed Yvette made no effort to reach for her purse.
I like when guys pay, she said.
When they got back to Stewart’s house, Yvette let Lola out of her purse onto the white carpet. The Pomeranian had trouble climbing the stairs due to its little legs, so Yvette lifted her up and carried her until they reached the living room.
She’s not going to take a shit, right? Stewart asked.
Lola can do whatever she wants, Yvette said.
Yvette settled into the couch. She wore a black dress that hiked up as she sat down. She crossed her legs and tossed her hair behind her. Lola, the dog, ran to a mini basketball on the ground. Stewart picked up the lone ball before Lola could reach it and put it back into the Pop-A-Shot machine.
That wasn’t nice, she said.
Want a drink? Stewart asked
Why? We’re not going to fuck.
Stewart went to the kitchen, which overlooked the living room. Behind the marble counter, he opened the stainless steel fridge and grabbed a Stella from the top shelf. With a bottle opener, he plucked the cap off. Then, he drank the entire beer standing.
I’m having surgery tomorrow, Stewart said. Soon, I’ll be in a sling.
What is that game anyway, Yvette said, staring at the Pop-A-Shot. There were two miniature basketball hoops side by side, separated by a black net and a pool of balls down the ramp on the other end. Stewart usually played alone.
Stewart set the bottle down on the counter and crossed the room to the machine, where the balls were. Lola was at his feet, hopping around, wanting a ball. The machine looked dead. Stewart grabbed two balls so that each of his hands gripped one. He faced the hoop, the net.
How many do you think I can make in sixty seconds?
I don’t know. Twenty?
Come on. Give me a challenge.
Lola barked at his feet as he held the balls in the air.
Thirty, she said.
Stewart narrowed his eyes and lobbed the first ball at the backboard. The machine came alive with carnival sounds and numbers lit red including the timer. Lola barked and hopped, and Stewart threw up ball after ball, swish after swish, rotating them in his hands like a juggler, the machine feeding them to him. He felt buoyed by the game, the imaginary opponent, his audience.
The game buzzed when the timer reached zero.
Forty-nine, Stewart said.
Is that good? Yvette asked.
That’s a new record, Stewart said.
Congratulations. Can you let Lola play with one of the balls now? I won’t have to watch her then.
No, Stewart said.
Yvette re-crossed her legs. No?
Stewart looked up at his score again. The 49 flashed red.
No, Stewart said.
So Yvette called boyfriend number three to pick her up instead, and Stewart went to bed.
The next day, Stewart had surgery, and the next day Stewart was in a sling.
When he tried the sling out at a bar, no girls gave him sympathy.
Ashton Politanoff lives in Redondo Beach, CA. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in NOON, Green Mountains Review, Hobart, Sleepingfish, the 2017 California Prose Directory, and elsewhere. He teaches English at Cal State Long Beach, Cerritos College, and Long Beach City College.