Memoir For Bob M-. Drifter Whom My Father Paid to be My Tennis Coach in 1980

When you summon the Devil, he arrives in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Smoke at the shelter house where the tournament draws are posted. Smoke by the coffee pot in the racquet club lounge. Smoke by a tree trunk where he smokes and scouts matches. A bellow of smoke like a beekeeper’s from the window of a brown Suburban, parked across the street from the courts where I’m leaning against the fence, stalling for time making my strings straight. I’m 14 and playing up an age class, and I can’t beat Curt Sweeney in Boy’s 16’s with his surfer calves and Bjorn Borg necklaces.

Through the fence the Devil tells me, “You’re leaving every goddamn approach short. Deep middle. Cut his angles off." He spits like a lizard to get tobacco off his lips. Coaching isn’t allowed in tournament play, but we both know since I'm not a threat, no one will report him.

He goes back to the Suburban.


Devil of the pony tail.

Devil of the ambidextrous forehands theory.  

Devil of the gold link bracelet in thicket of red wrist hair.

Devil of the Boast shorts with the marijuana leaf logo.  

Devil of the bum leg, who said he’d injured it in the 1967 Sun Bowl.  

Devil, who has taken up with the girl from the detention center where he was a counselor.  

Devil, who has convinced my father to hire him that summer to improve my ranking, which has flagged since 12’s.

1980 was our family’s late-disco period: after my parents told us they were divorcing, but before my mother left for a month in Jacksonville. After the news reported my father had and then hadn’t accepted a presidency in Virginia, for which he lost all the weight on Atkins and regained it when he didn't take the job. After my sister crashed the Toronado with me in it but before she lost Miss Illinois. After she and I brought a dog home from the pound and were made to take it back because my father thought it had distemper.

But it’s no longer 1980 and I never went higher than #13 in Boys 16’s. And the Devil is dead by now. And Jimmy Gunther too, my hemophiliac doubles partner who my mother said was gay, who wasn’t, but who died of AIDS anyway from a transfusion ten years later. There at the end when he was an ad salesman in San Antonio and I was a seminarian in Michigan he called me every night to repeat in a high and hallucinated cry: I’m getting married, man! By then I could hear his eyeballs whirring in their sockets like a slot machine.

And my parents never divorced. And nobody moved, but my sister left for college and never came back. And the truth is that the dog from the pound wasn’t all there. I remember my sister and me trying to authoritatively explain to my father why it went sideways when it ran. How we breezily made the best of why it couldn’t seem to bark or the eerie way it sought out corners.

She and I were only close when we had a common cause.

And even now at 58 I’m looking for someone to tell me what to do.

Dear Jesus: I mean it, I say.

I decided to pray for 40 days straight. For a sign. What should I do with my life, God?

No word. So I stopped. It takes some people too long to answer the phone.

I lasted a week. I quit as faithfully as ever and with my excuses intact.

Like when I wanted my self-pity to mean my family really had forsaken me. Like when I decided to learn guitar that summer in 1980 and then gave up.

When not only was it too hard for me to make barre chords, I told myself that no one else my age could either.

Bird Report

A bird dream. I am in the front yard with my daughter and a dog I don’t recognize w/hair like a goat’s. The dog sniffs at a tree.  

A hawk is circling. I am commanding, “Hawk!” and showing the hawk the perch of my arm, crooked at the elbow. I know I’m bluffing. I’m uneasy about what happens when the bird lands. I’m anticipating the weight of it, the fluster of wings, the talons, the blinking black eyes. Hawks can probably kill people, yes?

“Hawk!” I’m saying nevertheless, because I don't want my daughter to have to worry about me.