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February 16th, 2020
Lucilius tossed the ball up, watching it shrink darkly in the bight blue sky. It hovered momentarily at it’s smallest and then it began to grow, and when it had reached the right size Lucilius swung his other arm and crushed the tennis racket into the slowly spinning ball.
Then they were off, the abused ball ricocheting over the net as Lucilius’ godson sent him running back and forth with an ease that betrayed the boy’s years of practice.
He could still get a point on the boy here and there, but even as he slowly lost this small local tournament, he smiled at the basics that had grown in this young man, basics that Lucilius himself had taught the boy.
They took a break and Lucilius walked to the edge of the court where a friend sat with towel and a water bottle. It was hot and Lucilius poured the cold water down into him, wiped his face with the towel and just as he handed the bottle and towel back to his friend he noticed his expression.
“What’s wrong?” Lucilius asked.
“I thought you would beat him.”
Lucilius was confused. Especially with the concern on his friends face. “Why’d you think that?”
“You said he was your godson and that you taught him how to play. You know, like master-student sort of thing? So I put a bunch of money on you through a local gambling pool.”
“You what?” Lucilius demanded.
“I thought you’d beat him, you know, like know his weaknesses and stuff, and you were bragging about teaching him. And since you don’t really play the odds are crazy against you winning, the pay off would be insane if I won the bet, I’d be able to pay off all my debt and everything.”
Lucilius was dumbfounded. “Yea, I taught him the basics like 15 years ago. He’s a nationally ranked player now. I can get a point on him here and there, but you said it yourself: I don’t really play. He’s my godson, but he’s going to crush me, I’m in this just for fun.”
It was no use, Lucilius’ friend simply grew more nervous, realizing the mistake he’d made. Lucilius looked back at the court. His godson was there, ready, smiling.
“Well, you couldn’t have put much on it, right?” Lucilius asked.
His friend looked away.
“How much did you put on this?” Lucilius demanded.
His friend was nearly shaking, “I though it would work.”
His friend braced, as though for an impact. “I borrowed some money from some people.”
Lucilius sighed. He looked up at the vast blue sky, smiled a little and felt like laughing. What a mess. He looked back at his friend as though in jest.
“How dare you try to make a quick buck without giving me the chance to tell you how stupid the idea is.”
His friend cowered into his own shoulders.
Lucilius wasn’t actually upset. It was understandable. The guy had had a rough go during the last few years and the financial difficulty was making him impulsive, he wasn’t exactly making the best decisions.
Lucilius walked back onto the court with this new layer of situation settling on to his moment, this experience of a friendly game between himself and his godson, suddenly growing thick with consideration.
It wasn’t a serious tournament. It was a local ring, and the boy had entered more to play Lucilius than anything.
Lucilius thought quickly for a moment. It wouldn’t affect his ranking, not something small like this. But the boy was far superior to anything Lucilius could muster. Lucilius couldn’t win.
He tossed the ball up and began the volley, but his godson crushed it across the court and Lucilius could get nowhere near it. Two more points past, and as his godson served up the next ball, Lucilius watched his form. It was perfect. Lucilius volleyed it back, back and forth, until his godson had another point.
Then, Lucilius started walking towards the net as he had done many times years ago. The boy, as though on an old autopilot walked up to join him.
“That serve,” Lucilius said. “It’s spectacular. You’ve changed something since last we played. It’s not the way I taught you anymore, and I can’t tell, have you moved your thumb back up along the racket?”
The boy’s smile flattened to a harmless contemplation as he tried to find an answer, but he was puzzled.
“Nah, I don’t think so.”
“And your footwork,” Lucilius said, “As you leave the ground your left turns inward now, lands just fine but you seem to be moving differently? There’s a twist now in your lower half. You figure something out?”
The boy seemed a bit surprised.
“Hadn’t realized. Didn’t notice it on the last few videos.”
“Hmm..” Lucilius sounded. “Was just curious, let’s keep at it.” And he walked back to his position, leaving the boy to hesitate at the net.
He watched his godson walk back to position. The boy was full of wondering now, Lucilius could see. The boy looked at his racket hand, as he positioned and repositioned his thumb trying to figure out if something had been different. Then he seemingly shook it off. He pounced the ball against the ground and then set up to serve.
The ball went straight into the net.
The boy looked back at his hand on the racket, shifting the thumb back and forth.
Lucilius had to hustle to his full capacity for every last shot, but he won, as the boy faltered again and again.
And when they finally shook hands over the net, Lucilius was proud. The boy had taken to heart the first thing he’d ever taught him.
“Great game,” the boy said. “It’s been a while but you still got.”
Lucilius smiled and shook his head.
“Something I forgot to teach you back when I still knew something about this game.” The boy looked curious, nearly confused. “You let me get into your head. That stuff I said about your racket hand, and your foot turning on serve? Bullshit. I made it up. I didn’t beat you. I just got you into your own head, and got you to let me win.”
The boy was listening intently, his eyes narrowed, and when the feel and memory of the game just played ran through him as he listened, a smile grew.
“Son of a…” he began to say. But he chuckled, and brought Lucilius into a hug.
The two parted and the boy went on to his next match. Lucilius turned and walked back to his friend who sat, stunned.
“Alright,” Lucilius said. “Time for you to buy me dinner.”
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