My Father on the Tennis Court
by Peter Schmitt
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly.
A basket of balls, a net
between us—like twenty-eight
years ago. Only it’s me
pitching underhand, slowly,
as near to him as I can.
Him standing uncertain, lock-
kneed, but eager. Sixteen months,
we’ve waited for just this day:
to tell ourselves, This is it,
or There still might be a chance,
the tumor partly shrunken,
his feet enough unswollen
to squeeze into stiff Nike’s.
Now his first strokes, thick with rust.
The old form’s gone. What I thought
would come back quickly, doesn’t,
as if he’s forgotten all
he taught me. He looks, of course,
pretty damned good: the new shirt
my mother bought, plucky grin—
good as since the MRI,
the smudge like a mark on clay.
He’s even had me stop at
Mike’s, to swing the latest frames
in the magazines. Always
embracing the new: the first
at the courts to trade his wood
for steel (getting me one too).
Three times he’s let his doctors
drill screws through his skull, to fix
tight a gleaming helmet, a
Star Wars contraption firing
cobalt two hundred angles
at the cancer. And more balls
now are coming back, faster,
and just weeks ago I knifed
a smile in two tennis balls
to make wheels for his walker,
so now I toss one wider,
stretching him—only to watch,
surreal slo-mo, bloated feet
crossing him up, my father
going down: Duchamp’s Nude, piece
by broken piece, or softshoe
vaudevillian as the big cane
yanks him offstage. Before I
can reach him, his head hangs there,
a moment, suspended—then
smacks the cement. Toweling
the blood and we could be kids,
conspiring from Mom: if I
can get him to the shower . . .
But that night, the purple bruise
on his forehead (precisely
where the tumor is staging
its latest rally), and hand,
fractured, swelling, give us up.
Two months he’ll wear a cast; three,
he’ll be dead. And did my fear
put him on that court? Did he
consent for my sake? When you
were a boy, he says, you asked
to play; I never forced you.
Well, it’s just like then. Next time,
I think I’ll try that graphite . . .