"A fun story of love, sports, and animals."
Suburban Journals of Chicago Inc.
Flying Tennis Balls
My parents moved to Florida years ago and we were overdue for a visit. As Hilda and I drove in the bright sunshine, the palms trees stood at attention as if they were awaiting military review. We pulled into the charming little villa on A1A in Delray Beach where the walls were white and the roof was covered with the classic red ceramic tiles of its Spanish history.
We walked on the gravel driveway up to a small bluff about 30 feet away that overlooked a churning Atlantic Ocean. The sky was a pristine blue and the warmth felt good on our faces after another eventful Chicago winter. We looked at each other and smiled.
The attendant at registration was a healthy looking older woman who was fit and very tan. Her light blue eyes twinkled happily and she had a soft, pleasant low pitched voice. She was wearing a light blue tank top and khaki shorts that complemented her tall thin frame.
“Are you a runner?”
“In Florida you can do everything all year round. I play a lot of tennis, I bike, and of course I run,” she said.
“Where are the tennis courts?”
“We don’t have any but the public courts three miles north are pretty good. They don’t get used much because there are a lot of older retirees in the neighborhood.”
“Great, I’m looking for a game,” I said.
We went to our large two room condo after check-in. It had a set of French doors that opened onto a small enclosed patio with some beautiful purple and white orchids hanging from the awning. Hilda was in the other room unpacking. I closed my eyes took in the scent of the orchids and mused about how great this week would be. Then I heard her scream.
I rushed in expecting to do battle with a crazed intruder and my expectation rang sort of true. I was astonished to see Hilda running around the room while being chased by what looked like a flying brown tennis ball. Closer inspection revealed that it was a palmetto, a huge freakish cucaracha. In New York they just took your wallet and scurried away. This thing was the insect world’s answer to the Hindenburg. Who knew that they could fly?
I found the whole scenario refreshing and smiled. After all, Hilda was a tough Puerto Rican woman who had no fear. When we went with friends to the movies to watch horror movies, we looked through the button holes of our coats during particularly awful scenes. Hilda stifled a yawn. Years later we watched the Exorcist on cable and when Linda Blair twirled her head around I cringed. Hilda laughed.
Hilda made a break for the front door but the beast gained on her and cut her off. She continued to scream and run,but it only attracted it. I was dying to laugh but she would have killed me. I shouted in my best Dudley Do Right voice, “Don’t worry darling, I’ll save you!”
She screeched, “Kill the thing already.” I grabbed her tennis racquet. “Don’t use mine it’s new. Use yours!”
I looked at my old racquet and the memories flooded in. I was a very good tennis player in high school. As a junior I tried out for the tennis team and was rejected despite my performance. The coach wanted to have “younger blood” to mold.
Two months later I got hold of the number two player at a local cement tennis court. He was dressed in his cute little tennis whites and I wore my beat up old tank top and cutoffs. He walked up to me and eyed me up and down. Elliot had an annoying smarmy, arrogant smile and asked, “Abrams, up for a game?” I smiled back, threw him two balls, and said, “Your serve pal.”
I had three goals: whip his ass, draw blood and dirty his whites. The match was over in no time because he bowed out of the second set. My very first serve was so vicious and fast that he was only able to watch it sail past. I smiled inwardly when I saw the ”Oh Shit” look on his face. I played as if possessed. I was an in-your-face player and liked to hit the ball fast, hard, an inch over the net, and directly at him.
I sighed, grabbed my racquet, and with a mighty swing, killed the behemoth. The remains were a partially strained chitinous blob of palmetto gelatin. I examined the murder weapon with disgust and went to the bathroom to clean it off. Game. Set. Match.
“You can forget tennis this week,” I said.
About a year later we visited Puerto Rico for a week. Hilda was seven weeks pregnant and had that beautiful glow that was partly due to the strep throat that I diagnosed and treated the day before. My wife’s step father Miguel and mother Maria greeted us at the airport and drove us home in his old jalopy.
Maria was a friendly, warm, gracious lady. Her pony tail very long in the style of Pentecostal missionaries, she had no make-up, and she wore a simple blue flowered dress. Her skin was aged and dark like a piece of leather from all the years working in the fierce puerto rican sun. She was a great cook and the chicken fried in lard had a fantastic flavor and texture. Good taste or heart disease, life was often a trade-off.
Miguel was a fairly short guy, but built like a tank. He wore his usual white short sleeved shirt and a pair of worn dark brown chinos. He was a auto mechanic of great renown around the island and he also served as a local blacksmith. Besides wielding a 16 pound sledge hammer with one hand, he was able to remove entire engines from a car without a lift. He had a short fuse and was not to be to be trifled with.
When I first met him last year we made muscles together in a harmless game of testosterone poisoning. I was in pretty good shape and had decent arms. I cranked up my biceps for what I thought was an impressive display. Miguel smiled and folded his arm to flex, then he put his thumb in his mouth and blew as if blowing up a balloon. His bicep triple flexed into a boulder. “You win,” I said and looked for any excuse to get away.
The drive took us through the lush mountain vistas so typical of this little island treasure. We passed large mango trees that were kind enough to drop their wares onto the road. We stopped got out, collected a few large, ripe, bright yellow fruits and voraciously ate. After a three hour flight and the lousy airline food, we were ready for this treat.
The road was dotted with flamboyan trees with their large hibiscus-like, bright red and orange flowers. Once we left the highway, we passed several brightly painted homes along the way with orchids hanging from the eaves, decorative iron fences, and children riding along the road on their bicycles.
The beat up little church where Miguel worked as Pentecostal pastor welcomed at the mouth of the driveway. The main house was a classic two story white cement home but cars were strewn all over the property. The reeds and grasses were as tall as my six foot frame and there were several mango trees that were cut down to stumps. Miguel never liked the mess of the all the fruit falling from the trees. Apparently mangoes left in the hot sun smelled pretty bad and he didn’t feel like collecting them.
I eyed the carnage. I said, “Couldn’t he have left at least one tree standing?” I felt like crying
“Miguel doesn’t like mango and it’s his property” was Hilda’s response.
“He couldn’t sell them?”
“Look around. Everyone has mango trees. Trust me, when I heard about what he did I was furious. I don’t live here anymore and my mom didn’t put up a fuss. She’s fairly passive. That’s why I’m not.”
“So your behavior is all your mom’s fault.”
“Yes it is. Do you want to step outside and settle this?” She smiled.
“Only if you don’t fight dirty.” We smiled.
My wife’s step-father, being the gracious man he wasn’t, put us in a room well below my standard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fancy guy, but when in a hot environment like Puerto Rico in the summer, I prefer the cool breeze of an air conditioner. That is my standard.
The room was a spartan cement structure with a lumpy bed, a dresser and a couple of chairs. Cement homes in PR remained relatively cool compared to the hell outside.The windows were covered with metal louvers and to my horror had no screens.
“We’lI be eaten alive. The mosquitoes here are as big as toasters.”
“Don’t worry. If they’re that big then they won’t be able to fit through the slats in the windows.” I knew I was in trouble because there was a huge space under the door to allow any creature in our room. I groaned.
Two nights later I was awakened by something moving over my body. I gently lifted the sheets and I found a palmetto taking a stroll across my navel. I pushed it onto the right side of the bed and started to pound it with my fist, but no matter how hard I struck, the bed absorbed the impact .
Hilda woke up so I put my hand over the beast. A sense of nausea gripped me as I felt it wiggling in my hand. I was more afraid of Hilda freaking out than I was about the thing biting me.
“What are you doing?”
“Why are you hitting the bed?”
“I had to think fast. “You dreamt it.”
“Your pounding woke me up.”
“I didn’t want to worry you but I had a small seizure. I’m fine now. Don’t worry, I didn’t poop or pee in the bed.” I thought that as a nurse this would make her more at ease. She gave me the “I don’t believe you” look.
“What happened to your hand? It’s in a fist.”
“I have a cramp from the seizure.” Another look. “You really don’t want to know.”
“Out with it.”
I winced and opened my hand. Señor palmetto tried to escape but I had the shell between my fingers. Her eyes widened to a huge glow in the moonlight and she jumped out of bed, covered herself with her pillow and screeched. Suddenly there was no sound because the frequency of her screaming was outside the range of human hearing.
She started jumping around in hysterics. She was so adorable hopping around in the moonlight. She looked down at me and she stopped cold.
“I can’t believe you.”
“How can you be aroused at a time like this? For Chrissake you have a palmetto in your hand!”
I looked down and the evidence was staring me in the face. “But you looked so sexy, all naked, and vulnerable, and stuff.”
“Kill it,” she growled.
I closed my fist completely while my squirming captive made attempts to escape. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, 3 and 2 pitch. I wound up, I hurled that thing as hard as I could and it hit the wall with satisfying thud and crack.”Steee-rike three! Yer out!”
Triumphant, I hurled myself in the bed expecting a hug reserved for a hero. Hilda grabbed the pillow and her eyes widened again. She was staring at the creature and started to cry. “It’s not dead.”
“What are you talking about?” I turned and saw a couple of legs twitching. I was bewildered, but had the presence of mind to hop out of bed to kill it. I grabbed one of Hilda’s heels.
She said in a dead calm voice, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to kill the beast. What do you think?”
“Not with my cute shoes you’re not. I’ve had enough trauma for the night. Use something else. ” Fashion sense apparently trumped fear.
The twitches were now purposeful movements and it tried to right itself. I grabbed my new Converse All Star and looked at the mother of all insects. I pounded it into goop. I studied the bottom of my Cons and just shook my head. I thought, “How come it’s always my stuff?”
I walked back to bed but there was no hero’s welcome, no ticker tape parade. Hilda was sound asleep, exhausted from our ordeal with the creature.
I grabbed a towel and packed it under the door. I got back into bed,yawned and checked the bed for other palmetto family members. Satisfied, I curled up with the blanket tucked gently under my neck and drifted off to honey sleep. Then the rooster started to crow.
I couldn’t get back into the rhythm of sleep. I threw off the covers and put on a pair of jeans. I carefully navigated the cement terrace outside our bedroom because there was railing. I didn’t want to end up like Hilda’s brother, who the year before in a drunken stupor, fell off of the terrace and broke his leg. I wasn’t drunk, but I was dog tired.
I slowly crept around trying not to make any noise. Of course the rooster didn’t care and continued to crow in all of his self-assured glory. I looked up and spied a grapefruit tree branch overhead with some pretty large fruit. I grabbed one and took aim. I was ready for another killing. In this situation accuracy was critical. After the last kill, I was feeling cocky.
“Cocka-doodle do, cocka-doodle -do,” the little pecker head exclaimed. The grapefruit was the size of a soft ball and at 33 ft/second/second plus imparted velocity, it struck my opponent in the back of the head. “ Cocka-doodle-gwaauuppp,” were his last words.
I grabbed another grapefruit, peeled it, marveled at its wonderful,fresh taste and went back toward the bedroom. First, I put the peels in the bottom of the trash can in the kitchen so I wouldn’t raise suspicion, then I threw myself in bed and conked out.
I woke up three hours later to Hilda shaking my shoulder. “Did you throw a grapefruit at the rooster?”
I beamed. “Absolutely! I’m 2 for 2.”
“You idiot! Miguel is furious and he is on the warpath. That rooster is what helps make eggs.”
“Is the rooster dead?”
“No, but he’s groggy and staggering around.”
I smiled. “Then he probably won’t be in the mood for sex for a few days. This is a first, the male complains of a headache instead of the female.”
Her hands were on her hips. “Not funny.”
“Why would he think I did it?”
“Because he is a very suspicious man and you are a city boy. Besides he’s a pastor and doesn’t believe that God would drop a grapefruit on his prized rooster.”
I got dressed and went to the kitchen for breakfast. Hilda’s mom eyed me nervously. Miguel was ever the gentleman as he glared at me and allowed me to have my last meal. I chewed very slowly.
As soon as I finished eating he barked something at me in very fast Spanish. Hilda translated, “What did you do to my rooster?”
I said in broken Spanish, “What do you mean?”
“Did you try to kill my rooster with a grapefruit?”
I acted hurt and innocent. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I found a grapefruit next to my rooster and he is walking around crazy!”
I thought, “Can’t I kill anything with one throw in this God forsaken land?”. “Let’s go outside and look around,” I said.
Miguel went first and I was careful to walk behind Hilda, ladies first and all. We got down to the dusty barnyard and we examined the crime scene. I tried to look very interested and surveyed the place as if I was in “CSI:Puerto Rico”.
I looked up, snapped my fingers, and pointed to the tree. With my best Spanish I said,
“The grapefruit must have fallen from the tree and hit the poor bird in the head.” I stood there with my hands in my pockets with fingers crossed. I did the same with my toes.
Miguel eyed my suspiciously and looked to Hilda for the translation. She repeated and looked at me. Her arms were folded across her chest but her face was neutral. She was a talented accomplice
He looked up, studied the ground, its relation to the tree and finally conceded that it was a plausible explanation. I tried to remain calm. I was almost home free.
I’m a lousy liar. It was way too much work to control my emotions and keep track of all the built up non-truths that had to be cataloged for instant recall. He eyed me for what felt like an eternity. I tried not to get red, sweaty, smile stupidly, or break in any way. He was looking for the chink in my armor, that defining weak point where I would slip up and give myself away. In his line of work people lied to him all the time and he could smell it. He was the Pentecostal pastor, cop, judge, confessor, and walking lie detector machine.
I slowly breathed as I learned in yoga, meditation, and any other eastern art that I could muster. I looked him straight in the eye and didn’t blink. In my mind’s eye I saw the clear mountain stream that I visited in the Rockies during my youth, felt my first kiss as a teen, and my first moment making love to my wife.
He looked back and forth from me to Hilda. Then it happened. He said,”Okay,” smiled and walked away.
Hilda looked at me,still angry and said,” I don’t know how you pulled it off because you’re such a lousy liar. You’ll never be able to get away with anything like that with me so don’t try. If you’re ever with another woman I’ll know.”
“Exactly how did throwing a grapefruit at a rooster get in the same ball park as cheating on my wife?”
“I know you won’t, but just in case.”
I felt weary from the lack of sleep and near death experience. I shook my head and said, “My lying days are over. It’s too stressful.”
“Try not to do anything stupid for the rest of the week. Miguel will be watching you.”
“I know,” I said with a sigh.
“By the way, one more thing.”
“Try not to lie and cross your toes while wearing sandals.”
© Suburban Journals of Chicago
published by Suburban Journals of Chicago Inc.