A Christmas Miracle

 

Two weeks before Christmas, the Walnut Grove Tennis Club, hit rock bottom. We arrived at the courts that morning expecting a bit of fun and exercise but an hour later I feared that it was game, set, and match for our little association. It would take a miracle to repair the damage done that day.

It started well. Global warming had produced a good day for tennis in December. People like David Suzuki and Al Gore might believe that we are on the brink of a global disaster but we like the warming trend. The end may be nigh, according to the doomsdayers, but we’re resolved to keep pounding green fuzzy balls until the rising seas flood the courts for the last time.

The Walnut Grove tennis courts were constructed in a large rectangular depression next to the high school. This catch basin floods several times every year, damaging the foundation, the asphalt, and the nets. The decision to place six courts on that site was less than brilliant and they have been deteriorating for years. In the meantime, the free facility continues to be well used despite the growing cracks and holes in the playing surface.

Ian, the affable leader of our informal club, decided that a forecast high of five degrees above freezing was perfect for outdoor tennis and, in his wisdom, convened the session at precisely thirty minutes after sunrise. Ian is the magnet that holds us all together. For the last fifteen years he has approached tennis players in Walnut Grove and invited them to play. In the beginning, there were just a few of us, usually playing singles. Now there are more than twenty regulars playing doubles on any weekend, all organized by Ian.

This particular morning, I arrived early only to discover that one of the two usable courts was already in use. Two more nets had been removed as the Township continued the process of shutting down what they refer to as Langley’s finest recreational tennis amenity. It is cheaper to take nets down that fix the problems or build a new facility.

As usual, Gil was already there, swooping around between the mud-smeared lines as he warmed up with Harold, an excellent player who comes out regularly despite having only one good leg. He hobbles and hops around on the unrepairable knee cursing his handicap. On the other side of the net were Ziggy, the Polish-Canadian with the booming serve and Ian. They appeared to be well into their first set of doubles.

“Hey,” I yelled, feigning indignation, “I thought we weren’t supposed to be here until eight? Did you guys forget to call me with a new start time?”

Ian shrugged with a apologetic smile, while the others ignored my complaint and continued their game. I turned away and took possession of the remaining court just as Ted, the retired banker, arrived.

“This is ridiculous,” he muttered, “It’s too cold, it’s too early, who’s idea was this? I gotta go back to Arizona. Hey Ian, is it coffee time yet?”

By the time he tottered out to start hitting, he was wearing gloves, a balaclava, and three layers of athletic-wear.

Mark arrived next. The big, out-going left-hander doesn’t join us as often as he used to. According to Ian, he has discovered “lily-dipping”. I’m not sure what “lily-dipping” is but he joined a paddling club in Fort Langley. I hope that it isn’t as creepy as it sounds.

“OK, I’m here,” he announced, “Who’s the lucky guy who gets me as a partner?”

I pointed to the top of the embankment, “Here he comes.”

Mark turned to see Brian limping over the crest of the embankment. Brian hasn’t been a hundred percent since Doctor Scissorhands nicked his large intestine during a back operation at Langley Memorial over a year ago, but he continues to recover and it hasn’t stopped him from playing some good tennis. At the net, he hides behind a big white racquet the size of a trapper’s snowshoe and drives opponents crazy. He has an unflattering nickname due to legs that resemble two toothpicks sticking out of an olive.

“Alright,” Mark said, “Me and Knobby against you and Ted. Let’s go.”

We warmed up for ten minutes, until Ted shed a layer, while more players trickled in. Little Ron, the airline pilot, finally showed up, claiming that his tardiness was a result of making “breakfast” for his wife. Roy arrived from south Langley and the final foursome was rounded out by Ross the globe-trotting, industrial compost salesman and “New” Raymond.

“Old Raymond” Chan disappeared a few years ago. We never knew what he did for a living and no one is sure what happened to him but Ian suggested that a Chinese prison camp might be his new home. All we know is that he didn’t come back from a trip to Asia a few years ago, so we adopted a replacement Raymond, an ex-tennis pro who owns more racquets and equipment than our local sporting goods store.

The new arrivals stood around for a few minutes looking confused and lost until Ian told them to get the temporary net from his van. We started our set while they wrestled with thirty feet of bright orange snow fence, haywired into a net. I noted that some of the usual suspects were missing: Bernie, who preferred golf to tennis, Michael the preacher, was probably working on his Christmas Day sermon, and who knows what Ralph, the writer, and Ladi, the Czech realtor, were up to this morning. Probably enjoying a hot coffee in a warm kitchen like sane people.

 Ted spun his racquet to determine first service and won, even though Mark guessed that the symbol on the end of the handle would be “up” and Brian said “down”. I don’t know why we bother, Ted never loses that part of the game. He held serve in the first game despite Mark’s exhortations to Brian to “dominate the net”. We traded wins without incident while the late-comers started a set, despite a sagging, wobbly net and for thirty minutes the courts were filled with satisfying and familiar sounds of friendly competition. There was the usual ribbing and mild trash talk. There were pops of good contact between string and ball, along with the clunks of bad strokes. The insults were generally mild and mostly in good fun.

But the mood and atmosphere on the courts changed with the arrival of dark, ominous clouds. They rolled in thick and foreboding, pushed in by a cold breeze from the northeast. We played on in the gathering gloom but the banter turned nasty when I slapped Mark’s serve down the line behind Brian who was poaching into the middle, as he is wont to do.

“You asshole,” he muttered.

Even in our loud and uncivilized group, this was a major breach of etiquette but before I could respond, we heard Harold screaming at his bad leg. I turned to see him smashing the right knee with his racquet. It wasn’t an unusual event but this time he must have swung too hard because he screamed in pain and fell down, clutching the appendage. Just then, the snow fence collapsed and rolled up into a grotesque orange snake to the dismay of the foursome beside us, as a cell phone rang insistently.

“I have to take this,” Ross said looking at the illuminated display, “It’s the King of Moravia. I think that I can close this deal.”

He walked away, his voice loud enough to carry halfway around the world, “No Your Majesty, we have not tested our technology on human remains but I’m sure composting will work. Green genocide? Ah, sure, that might just be the positive spin you’re looking for.”

On our court, as Brian bent over to pick up a ball, he yelped in pain and reached for his back, “I can’t straighten up,” he grunted through gritted teeth.

All play ceased, Harold was trying to get up and Brian was still bent over.

“Do we need ambulances?” I asked, walking toward my cell phone.

Suddenly the ground moved.

“Earthquake!” Someone yelled.

In mid-step, the violence of the shaker unbalanced me and as I fought to stay upright I could see the asphalt surface, already cracked after years of neglect, fracturing like an arctic ice-sheet in springtime. I went down like a rag doll and lay on my back, and waited for the trembling to subside. I looked up at the black cloud hovering over Walnut Grove and made the mistake of thinking, “Could this day get any worse?”

The temperature dropped a couple of degrees, a shiver snaked down my spine, and the cloud unloaded a small ocean of freezing rain, instantly soaking through to the skin. Everyone scrambled to collect racquets and bags. Even the injured men managed to hobble to the parking lot under their own power. Good-byes and Merry Christmases were exchanged quickly and we drove away, leaving relationships, bodies, and courts in shambles.

It struck me as odd that the sun was shining over my house when I pulled into the driveway and inside, my wife looked at me as if I had just escaped from an insane asylum when I asked her if the earthquake had caused any damage inside the house.

“What earthquake? What are you talking about?” she responded.

“We felt it up at the courts,” I said, “It was bad.”

“Have you guys been drinking beer already this morning?” she asked.

Unsettled, and questioning my own sanity, I retreated to my home-office. I opened the laptop and proceeded to chronicle the events of the morning on my blog. I ended the entry with, “Dear Santa: Don’t bother with the new racquet I asked for. I don’t think we’ll be playing tennis in Walnut Grove next year.”

The following weeks were a whirl of shopping and preparations for the big day. On Christmas morning, after the presents were unwrapped and the oven was full of turkey, an eerie feeling came over me. I felt an otherworldly whisper that sounded a little like static from a distant, mistuned radio.

I strained to make sense of the insistent buzz, twisting my head in different angles until I noticed Sherry looking at me with sad, questioning eyes. I couldn’t make out any words but I knew that I was being called.

“I’ve gotta go out for a few minutes,” I said and headed for the door before she could ask after my sanity again.

   I was inexplicably drawn towards the tennis courts and could not believe my eyes as I drove up Walnut Grove Drive toward the high school. The destroyed tennis courts had been replaced by a huge translucent bubble over six gleaming new courts brightly illuminated by unseen lights. It was a bright beacon and tennis players were flocking to it like moths.

I pulled into the parking lot in front of the school to see that every member of the tennis club had received and understood the same message. Nobody spoke or asked any questions out loud. We knew that the answers weren’t out here. Transfixed, we approached the bright bubble and entered through the airlock. Except for the Christmas tree in the center of the space, it looked ready for play.

“How?….” Ian asked to no one and everyone, at the same time.

“How is this possible?” Little Ron completed the question.

            There was no way that the Township had done this. Even if they were so inclined, it would have taken months to put together something like this, not a couple of weeks. We gawked and explored for a few minutes, eventually gathering around the brightly lit tree.

At the age of fifty-something, my Christmases had lost any magic and wonder long ago but in the absence of any other explanation, the question had to be asked, “Is it a Christmas miracle?”

            “I think it is.” Mark said.

            At this moment Santa Claus chose to reveal himself. He appeared out of a darkened corner and announced his arrival with a cheery, “Hello, hello!”

            We turned to see Santa’s traditional red and white suit occupied by a man who was slimmer and more Asian than commonly portrayed. It wasn’t until he was about ten feet away, and he’d taken off the cap, that we recognized our benefactor.

            “Raymond?” Mark said, “It’s my old drinking buddy, Raymond Chan.”

            And so it was. Old Raymond had returned with gifts.

            “I work for the Christmas department of Chinese government now. Old Santa had an elf shortage at North Pole, and everything’s made in China now anyway. We monitor the internet for Santa wishes, I saw Big Ron’s blog and since I am coming home for Christmas, I brought a sample of a new product – Instant indoor tennis court.” He beamed.

            We welcomed him home and tried out the new facility for a couple of hours until our cell phones demanded that we return home. I could have been a dream but everything seemed different inside that bubble. Ted offered to buy coffee more often and Ross’ cell phone didn’t ring. Harold ran around like a gazelle and spoke lovingly to his knee. Brian’s back felt so good that he was a terror at the net and I called him an asshole, which caused us to laugh and shake hands. I swear, even his thighs and calves looked bulkier. We might have to find a new nickname.

It truly was a Christmas miracle.