Lenora rolled off her lover and rested on the cool sheets, inhaling the scent of sex. Outside in the autumn rain, an electric trolley hissed and popped its way along Baltimore Avenue. She remembered her brother’s dirty joke from when they were little: “Your mama’s like a trolley car – anybody can hop on for a ride.” He should talk, she thought. Four wives with no end to it. If he’d just learn not to marry them all.
She got up to use the bathroom, Richard already snoring. When she lay back down, refreshed after a quick shower, her cell phone vibrated on the nightstand. She checked caller ID and frowned, but pushed the button anyway.
“Hey, honeybunch, it’s your father.”
“Dad, I told you to phone me during office hours.”
He chuckled. “Ah come on, Len. I’ve been pacing around the studio guzzling my single malt. Thought I’d give my favorite daughter a call.”
“I’m you’re only daughter…unless you’ve got others stashed somewhere.”
“Damn, you always were the stickler for detail.”
“So what do you want?”
“You got somebody there with you? Can’t spend a few minutes talking to your old man?”
“Who I’m with is none of your business.”
“I know, I know. Look, your Mother’s cooking up a huge spread for Thanksgiving. We’d like you to come home for a couple days. The trees still show some color and the creek’s flowing free.”
“I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of work. I’m going to trial next week.”
“Yeah, all right, sure… but all work and no play makes Jill a frigid bitch.”
“Gee, Pop. I always wondered what you really thought of me.”
“Come on, Len. Relax. You’ve got time for a day or two on the ole farm. Bring your boyfriend if you want. I’ve got the tennis court cleared off. We can play a few sets.”
“What’s wrong, can’t find any locals that’ll put up with you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Images of summer evenings on the freshly painted court flooded Lenora’s mind – angry commands, wooden rackets heaved across the sagging net, the sting of mosquitoes on sweaty arms, her mother inside, hunched in front of the TV, her brother out cruising the New England backwoods with his hoodlum friends.
“Is Eric going to be there?” she asked, ignoring her father’s question.
“Your brother won’t return my calls. Maybe you could try his number and–”
“Forget it. I’m not getting in the middle of that.”
“So are you gonna come? What should I tell your Mother?”
“I’ll drive out on Wednesday afternoon and leave Friday morning.”
“Thanks, Len. It means a lot to both of us.”
In her dark kitchen, she poured Jameson’s into a water glass and sat naked on a vinyl-covered stool, sipping, thinking. Over the two decades since she’d left the farm, she’d been home once or twice a year. Work at the firm has kept me away, she told herself. She sucked on her bitten fingernails and tried to focus on the Irish whiskey’s burn, on the heat of the moment. I get so tired of trying to control things…and I learned from the master. But two days with them…and then there’s Eric. If he does show up, it’ll be because his ditsy wife guilt-tripped him into it. Shivering, she gulped the drink, peeled herself off the stool and returned to bed.
Holiday traffic packed the interstate. Heading north out of Philadelphia toward Allentown, Lenora pressed the buttons of her iPod and listened to the car’s stereo play an old recording of Miles Davis performing My Funny Valentine. She followed the music in her mind, like a whispered conversation, deliberate yet surprising in the angles and notes the trumpeter chose. Her father had been that way with tennis…calculating in his moves, yet somehow erratic in his overall approach. “Hit it where they ain’t,” he’d yell at her and slice the ball, causing enough spin to make her return volley dive into the net. He taught me just enough to be his sparring partner, but never enough to win.
West of Allentown, whipping along at 80 in the fast lane, she lowered the BMW’s passenger-side window. The wind blew dark hair into her eyes, and she swiped at it impatiently. A tractor-trailer in the lane next to her moved left. She leaned on the horn but the behemoth kept coming. Stabbing the brakes, she swerved to the right. A slow-moving hay truck blocked the lane. She stomped on the brake pedal and twisted the wheel. With tires screaming, the car became a merry-go-round, slamming her against the door. It came to rest in fender-high weeds at the edge of the woods.
“Damn it, son-of-a-bitch,” she yelled and smacked the steering wheel with an open palm. She got out and walked around the car, rubbing her side and avoiding the poison ivy. A wheel rested at a strange angle and another tire looked flat. Retrieving her cell phone, she keyed the number and her father answered.
“Hey Dad, it’s me.”
“I thought you’d be here by now.”
“Took me longer to get out of the city. But…but I’ve got a problem.”
“What? Are you all right? You sound strange.”
“I took a bad spin.”
“Are you hurt? Anybody else…”
“No. No, I’m fine. But my car’s bent. I got one flat and it looks like something broke in the suspension.”
“Where are you?”
“Just east of the Lenhartsville turnoff.”
“Stay there and I’ll come get you.”
“Thanks. I’ll call Triple-A and get them to send a tow from Allentown.”
“Nah, Just wait till I get there. I know a guy in Hamburg that does good work and is a hell of a lot cheaper than those big city garages.”
“Okay, Dad. You win. But come straight away. I don’t want to be stuck in the weeds here forever.”
She lowered the seat back and stretched out, listening to Miles. Jeez, not one person has stopped to check on me. What do I have to do, explode into flames? And where the hell are the state police? Slow cool jazz filled the car, like smoke from a genie’s lamp. She let out a deep breath, locked the doors and closed her eyes.
An insistent rapping on the driver’s side window brought her bolt upright. She stared into the face of an old man with piercing blue eyes. He tugged at his scraggly beard and laughed. “Hey lady, can ya spare a dollar?”
She pushed the door open and climbed out. “Christ, Dad. How did you get so…so old?”
“Your Mother says the gray beard puts on ten years. But it’s worth it not to slice up my face shaving.” He pulled her to him and enveloped her in his musty smell cut by the scent of Tricorn cologne. She felt the thud of his heart through his flannel shirt.
“You look like Grizzly Adams in that outfit. Sort of slumming it for a New York-trained artist, don’t you think?”
“And you look like ‘Our Miss Brooks’ – remember that old TV show with Eve Arden and…?”
“Sorry Dad, before my time.”
“She was buttoned up and prissy, but looked sexy at the same time.”
“Thanks for the compliment…I think.”
“Well, let’s check out your car and get things going. I’ve already called my mechanic and he’s sent a tow truck.”
“Your Beemer looks nice sitting in the weeds…should do a painting of it with the forest in the background.”
“I’m glad you think it’s artistic. I just need it fixed by Friday morning.”
“Already planning your escape?”
“Something like that.”
“I don’t blame you. Eric showed up with wife number four and her three boys. Talk about instant family. I’m wondering where the hell he got his taste in women?”
“Yeah, I wonder.” Lenora covered her smirk with a hand.
Her father knelt and stared under the car. “Looks like one of the struts is broken. They may have to send for parts.”
“You use that language in court?”
“More than you’d think.”
“Don’t worry about the time. I can drive you back Friday morning if you really need to be there.”
“Let’s see how it goes.”
“I see you brought your tennis racket…it’s about time for our rematch.”
“Remember that summer before you went to college? I ran you ragged around the court. You couldn’t return anything.”
“Oh yeah. I remember screaming about coming back some day to kick your ass.”
“You used more expletives, but yeah. So are ya ready?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
At mid-day they ate a huge turkey dinner and spent Thanksgiving afternoon yakking…mostly her father bragging about the experimental winter wheat and rye crops planted by his tenant farmers in the upper fields. By sundown they’d finished off the fixings for martinis. Her brother and his family disappeared upstairs, having claimed the best bedrooms in the stone farmhouse. Her mother holed up in the kitchen and refused help with the dishes. Lenora had tried talking with her at the dinner table, but it just made her father jealous. I’ll wait till the old man falls asleep watching the late news… She and her father moved to his back studio where he showed her his latest paintings – oils of the Pennsylvania countryside and village scenes.
“My New York agent can sell these like hotcakes,” he told her.
“Great, the world can’t have too many farm scenes.”
“Is that a shot?”
“Yeah, maybe a little. I liked the abstract work you were doing.”
“You’re probably the only one. Can’t sell that stuff.”
Lenora picked her way around the studio that stank of turpentine, casein, and musty rolls of canvas. A phalanx of easels that displayed his latest works in various stages of completion lined the far wall next to a hot plate, coffee pot, and a sink that hadn’t been scrubbed white since the Reagan administration. She flipped through stacks of finished artworks while her father watched.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
“I like the ones along Maiden Creek…you’re great at painting water. But the barn and village scenes are….well, it’s the same ole stuff.”
“Yeah, I know. Can do them in my sleep.”
She continued her critique, moving from stack to stack, humming jazz tunes that had become hopelessly stuck in her head.
“Can’t put it off any longer,” her father said.
“What are you talking about? Put what off?”
“Just go get changed and grab your racket.”
“But Dad, I got a big lump in my gut from eating Mom’s stuffing all afternoon.”
“A couple good sets will help ya work it off. Now get going.”
She remembered that tone of voice, his lack of sympathy, his insatiable need to confirm his virility. When I play him, I’m no longer his daughter, just some impudent yokel on the other side of the net.
The cold night air stung Lenora’s face and bare legs. Her left side throbbed every time she twisted. She wound her way down the dark path, past the bank barn and stock pond to the tennis court lit by a pumpkin-colored moon. Her father clicked on the harsh lights. The net sagged badly and he struggled to cinch it tight while she swept oak leaves off to the side. Finally, he peeled off his sweats and adjusted his headband. “Come on, let’s warm up.”
She walked slowly to her favorite spot and stared at him. He’d put on weight. But his leg muscles still stood out like taut ropes and his shoulders looked powerful. We’ll see if my months at the gym have helped…and Richard is no slouch as a tennis partner. I just might have a chance…
They batted the ball back and forth, he placing shots at the corners or chip shots that just cleared the net and made her run full tilt to return them. He’s toying with me…trying to wear me down… They began the first set. His serves jammed her up, kept her off balance, unable to swing freely, and his power shots down the line made her reach. God, I’m back in high school again, she thought. The guy hasn’t slowed a tick…and his control is phenomenal. But her own serve had improved and her two-handed backhand smashes caught him flat-footed. He won the first set 6-4.
“Where the hell did ya learn that backhand?” he asked.
“I have friends who’ve taught me a few things.”
“If you’d do some weight training and improve your upper body strength, ya wouldn’t need that sissy swing.”
“Huh, tell that to the pros that use it.”
“And you’re still not throwing the ball up high enough on your serves. You’ll never get enough power behind it if ya don’t.”
“No whatever bullshit. Just do it and you’ll see.”
Their breaths formed steam clouds in the still cold night. A horned owl called from the woods. Down the valley at the Warmkessel Farm, the horses whinnied then quieted. Lenora fingered her pulsating side and winced. I should get this checked out. Probably cracked a rib. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let the old man know. He’d use it as an excuse to quit playing. She watched him towel off and massage his chest.
“You okay, Dad? You’re not–”
“I’m fine, just fine. Doing better than you with those bruised ribs.”
“Yeah, where are the airbags when ya need ’em.”
In the second set Lenora’s power shots landed just beyond his reach. She began jamming him with her serve and got her first-ever ace against him.
“See, I told ya your serve would get better if you’d just–”
“Sure, Dad. It’s all about you. Just play, will ya.”
Their games wore on with lots of deuces. If anything, that son of a bitch is hitting harder now than at the beginning. But Lenora focused on returning everything and out-positioning him. She won the second set 6-3. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the bench against the court fence, breathing hard, the front of her skimpy dress sodden. She wrapped a towel around her neck and shuddered violently, noticing a funny taste in her mouth.
With a grunt, her father pushed himself up. “Come on, let’s finish the match before I get cold.”
“So, you’re in a hurry to lose?”
“No, I’m in a hurry to mix myself a gin and tonic to celebrate the victory of experience over youth.”
“I’m not exactly young, Dad…and I’ve got plenty of experience.”
He leered at her then chuckled. “I’m sure you do, honeybunch.”
“What a terrible thing to say to your daughter.”
“Sorry. I guess I always figured that, of anybody, you’re the one that can take it, can push back.”
Lenora grinned. “Yeah, well remember that after I clean the court with you.”
She walked slowly to the baseline with two tennis balls in her left hand. Tossing one into the air, she reached back with her racket and started the downward smash. A stabbing pain shot up and down her left side. She yelped sharply and dropped to her knees.
“What’s wrong, Len? You…”
She watched him run toward her, as though through a fog, in slow motion. Her mouth tasted like iron. She touched it with a hand and came away with a palm full of sticky red. Her chest tightened and she sank to the concrete, lying on her back, choking. She felt her father’s hands gently roll her on her side and slide a towel under her head. A pool of blood spread across the cement. She coughed and sprayed him with a red mist.
“Hang on, Len. Just hang on.”
He yelled and yelled. Upslope, lights blinked on in the dark farmhouse. Running footsteps in the night. Her whole body vibrated to the cold. He covered her in his sweats.
“My cell…” she gasped, motioning to her equipment bag. He ran to retrieve it and punched in nine-one-one.
“Rest easy, honeybunch. They’re only ten minutes away.”
She watched as others arrived, saw the horror in her mother’s face. Her brother looked bewildered, letting her father handle everything. Typical, she thought. When Dad pushes back with Eric, he just shuts down and disappears. The siren sound echoed amongst the hills, flashing red and blue lights visible through the trees. Then they arrived, took her pulse, lifted her onto a gurney, and inserted an IV needle into her arm. A young paramedic with a red beard shot rapid-fire questions at her. Aboard the rocking ambulance with her father by her side, the siren’s muffled wail followed them along the twisting road.
She lifted the oxygen mask and motioned to her father to come close. “We’re not done.”
“I was kicking your ass. We have a third set to play.”
“Christ, Len. You think your old man is that tired? I was saving myself up.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Believe what ya want. You’re just gonna have to come back and finish the rematch.”
“I know…and stop painting that crap, will ya? You’re too good for that.”
He chuckled. “Now I know you’re delirious.”
“I mean it.”
“I know you do, honeybunch.”
The ride smoothed out as they hit the interstate. She stared at her father, his paint-stained hands clasped before him, head down, studying his shoes. The rematch will never end until one of us dies, she thought. But it’s the push back between us that pulls us together. Smiling, Lenora closed her eyes and listened to the rattling ambulance as it picked up speed on its race toward Hamburg. Somewhere in her head the jazz kept blowing.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skinny cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 125 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including the Houston Literary Review, Birmingham Arts Journal and Boston Literary Magazine. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.