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The Squash Player

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981

Art McNeal woke at four o’clock Tuesday morning with a sharp pain in his lower back. He tossed for half an hour before his wife, Muriel, turned over and said, “For God’s sake, Art, go to sleep.”

He got up and went to the bathroom, where he checked himself in the full-length mirror. Not a mark: his ribbed back showed no cut or bruise. He turned around and stared for a moment at his sleep-swollen face and the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes. Back trouble was no joke. He knew men far younger than he who couldn’t play tennis or golf or even jog. He tried bending back and forth, but the pain restricted him to swaying. He got into the shower and turned the dial spigot toward hot.

Muriel came into the bathroom with her robe on and got a glass of water. Art leaned from the shower.

“What’s with you?” she asked.


“From the squash?”

He shook his head. “I must have slept on it wrong,” he said. He stepped boldly from the shower and grabbed a towel from the rack. “It hurts though.”

Muriel rummaged through the untidy medicine closet which was filled with vials, small cans, and bottles.

“Maybe there’s some linament here.”

“It needs heat,” Art said.

Muriel held up a bottle of pills. “I have a prescription drug for pain,” she said. “Dr. Grogan gave it to me last summer when I had the inflammation.”

Art refused her with a stare. Her hair was lighter than whenever he had last noticed it, more frosted blond and gray. (Though he had asked many times, he could never get a straight answer whether it was the sun or the result of beauty treatments at Yvonne’s.) She looked healthy enough otherwise, with a thin body and nice legs, which she somehow maintained without exercise.

“Anything to make you sleep,” she said.

“I’ll go up to Janie’s room.”

“Have you thought,” she asked smiling, “that maybe you’re finally getting old?”

The afternoon before, he had played seven games of tough squash with Terdell Hardy, who had played on the Williams team four years ago. Although Art was a good dozen years older, he had won four of the games, including the last two. No one was in better shape than Art. He had made the squash team at Yale only in his senior year, but he was a tenacious competitor. What he lacked in natural ability he made up in sheer speed and hustle. He could run forever, from corner to corner, from front wall to back wall. He threw himself at corner kills to keep the ball alive. At Yale he had led the team in broken racquets, trying to salvage side wall huggers. Art knew that if he could stick in the point long enough, his opponent would make a mistake.

Janie’s bed was no help. Her room was cold and unfamiliar and too quiet. Besides, he worried about her not being there. Art had visions of his daughter as the victim of a heinous crime. He imagined her being accosted as she walked to class in her green school uniform or molested as she hitchhiked into Boston. Always he saw her body lying in a leafy woodland with her throat slit.

He blamed Muriel for the decision to send her away. Muriel’s theory was that private school would awaken the dormant intellectual seed. In another environment Janie could flourish. Art swore that 14 was too young to be away from home. If Janie spent less time listening to Fleetwood Mac and The Kiss, she would improve her grades. It made him uneasy that from such a distance— Connecticut to Massachusetts—he could not vouch for her safety.

When he found a comfortable position without pain, his thoughts of Janie interfered, and he rolled over and winced. He supposed he had protected her too much, had allowed her too much. Not that she had been trouble in the normal sense: she had never been wild or openly hostile. Sometimes she hitchhiked, and he warned her of the possible consequences. She malingered when she played tennis. She did not run after shots she could get, and she circled her backhand to hit the easier forehand. He had told her a thousand times she could not improve her game if she insisted upon taking the path of least resistance.

What worried him most, however, was that Janie was as attractive as her mother had been, as her mother was. Both boys and girls sought her company. Good looks led to many alternatives, alternatives to equivocation, and equivocation ultimately to sadness and destruction.

Art sat up in bed. The night had sifted away, and the room was slowly taking shape and color. Janie’s record shelf, half-empty, divided the far wall into squares. Janie had left two posters on the wall. Had she thought too little of them, or too much, to take them with her? One was a blowup of Eric Clapton with a yellow flash highlighting his guitar and his electric hair. The other was a sunrise photograph over dunes and water, captioned in Gothic scrawl with the platitude TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

With effort he got up and opened the curtains. The spiny tips of the trees behind the house were outlined in silver against the darker hill beyond. During the night the frost had turned the grass white, and the small black stream that flowed along the border of their property was frozen at the edges where the current ran more slowly. Through the tangled patch of brush and trees, he was surprised that he could see two other houses.

Janie’s huge circular mirror reflected gray from the window’s dawn, and Art watched himself pace in the gathering light. He was short, five-eight (which he neither liked nor accepted), and his body was finely-muscled. He needed no discipline to stay fit: squash was as much exercise as anyone needed. He rotated his shoulders and held out his arms, palms up. His right forearm was thicker than the left from the years of racquet sports. He pressed a hand against his back to push away the ache.

He had long ago tried to persuade Muriel that a second child would benefit all of them. At first she had acquiesced. Janie was two, and life had been on the upswing. But Muriel had not conceived. He had begged her to see a doctor.

“Why do you think it’s me?” she asked.

Then gradually the worn psychological argument paled as Janie grew older. Art still felt that turning all the parental energy upon one child was like focusing a magnifying glass upon dry tinder. But it was more than that, more than he cared to admit. He wanted to change the odds which, as he saw it, were all or nothing.

Even as late as last spring he had brought up the subject again.

“It won’t help Janie now,” Muriel had said, setting out wine glasses.

“It might.”

“I’m too old. Statistically, women nearing 40 have a smaller chance of giving birth to healthy children.”

“You’re 34, and the chances are good.”

“Art, my life is tolerable now, and for the moment I have no desire to change it so you can feel proud of your virility.”

“For God’s sake, my virility has nothing to do with it.” He had twisted the bottle of wine he was pouring and spilled some on the tablecloth. “And what do you mean “for the moment?”“

“Just what I said.”

At six-thirty Muriel called up the stairs that he would be late for his morning train.

He called back: “I’m not going.”

Muriel’s footsteps came up the stairs, and she entered Janie’s room dressed and already made-up. She wore a pair of green plaid slacks and a gray ski sweater. “Are you really hurt?” she asked. The question was more in her voice than in her eyes.

“I can’t work,” he said. “I’ll have to call Muncie.”

He started to get up, but instead fell back into the bed. A long sliver of pain shot along his spine. “Maybe you can go out and get me some Atomic Balm.”

She gazed at him calmly and critically, as though she were impatient with his imagining. “Anything else?”

“I guess not.”

She shook her head. “You should call Dr. Grogan,” she said slowly, “if it’s that bad.”

“Look. . . .” He felt his temper start.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He dozed, then woke when he started suddenly in his dream. He had taken Janie to the park. She was younger in his dream, her hair in tight blond curls and her child’s body in a short-sleeved yellow dress. He watched her run across the sidewalk, leaves fluttering, dappled in the sunlight and shadow behind her. Color flashed to his eye—the yellow of the dress, the green, the red coat of a man who was chasing her. Art sprinted toward Janie, but too late: the man with the knife moved away.

The shock took several minutes to ease, slipping away as his heart resumed its steady beating. He could not recall any time in the match with Terdell Hardy when he had pulled a back muscle. He could have understood the trauma, but he hated the void. Several years before, at an office picnic, he had played soccer, and for three days afterward, he could barely move. But that was explainable: soccer utilized different muscles. He was in shape to play squash.

He closed his eyes again, only to be shaken by the chiming bell of Janie’s telephone. He sat up and answered. “Hello.”

The line was quiet for several seconds, and then the caller hung up. Art frowned and laid the Princess into its cradle.

The small pennant he had given Janie for her birthday (to inspire her) was still tacked to the wall above her dresser, together with other mementos she had outgrown. Fifteen. She would, of course, be back at Christmas: school was not that far away. But it made him sad not to see her every day. The child had so much potential. She had tested in the 98th percentile in the public school, and she could easily have been near the top of her class wherever she went. Potential: a tough word to define. Could do, might have done. When did it change?

Muriel, for example, had potential. She had grown up in a close family of painters and pianists and had inherited both temperament and talent. As she sat at the piano, her hands glided over the keyboard pulling flight, breezes, despair from the music. Art wished she would play again. What might she have done if, long before, she had tried the world of concert music instead of marrying him?

She had stopped playing when Janie was born. The house was suddenly empty of music. Art had thought that when Janie’s needs subsided, Muriel would resume playing.

“I’d be glad to listen,” he had said.

“I have no time to practice.”

“You make time. If you. . . .”

She cut him off with a half-smile. “I don’t feel like playing.”

Janie had never learned the piano, but she was smart. The trouble was that potential disappeared as quickly as a footprint in the sand at low tide.

In Art’s own case, potential had not mattered so much as perseverance. He was a plodder, bright enough to do well if he worked hard. He might have preferred a career in publishing to the one he had chosen in law, but he never permitted himself to regret anything. Once in a while he still thought of his grandfather’s printing shop—the roll and whine of the huge presses, the smudged aprons of the men who wore green plastic-brimmed caps, the acrid and tantalizing smell of ink. But his grandfather had sold when Art’s father had been injured in an automobile crash. The important thing, his grandfather said, was paying the bills.

The electric clock beside Janie’s bed changed: eightzero-nine, 18. Art called his secretary at the office and told her he was sick.

He hated lying in bed. No matter what the pain was like he wanted to be up and doing something, anything—digging in the garden, raking leaves, running. Except for the maddenly thin line between comfort and agony, he felt fine.

Through the skeleton of the house, he heard the remote-control garage door open and close. Then the telephone chimed again. He waited for Muriel to answer, and when she didn’t, he lifted the receiver quietly and said nothing.

“Muriel?” The man’s voice sounded familiar, but Art could not place it.

“Who’s this?”

The caller hung up abruptly.

It seemed an eternity before Muriel reached the oak floor in the hall. When she finally came upstairs, he asked sullenly, “Where were you?”

Muriel unbuttoned her coat. “I took some books back to the library,” she said, “and I saw Misty, and I put in a load of wash.”

“At this hour?”

“Today’s laundry day,” she answered blithely. She opened her tote bag and took out the Atomic Balm. “Do you want me to put this on your back?”

He scrutinized her face for some sign of meaning, but the cool lines did not change configuration. He threw back the covers and gingerly turned over onto his stomach.

“And all this time,” she said. “I thought you were so rugged.”

The strategy in squash was to control the tee. If you could keep your opponent behind you and in the corners, he could never attack. It was like physical chess: any small advantage could be pressed relentlessly until it became a decisive lead. Position was critical. Since both players hit the ball to the front wall, the center was avidly contested. The jostling of bodies, pushing, and collisions were a part of the game. Art liked the closeness, the feeling of a sweat-soaked shirt on his back, the wearing down of the opponent.

Success was quickness and guile. Art had a good drop shot and a fair three-wall, but it was his conditioning that enabled him to retrieve everything his opponent could hit. And he had great deception. Nothing gave him more satisfaction than to see his opponent on the wrong foot, leaning in the wrong direction as Art hit a reverse corner.

Muriel brought him breakfast on a tray: eggs, ham, cereal, orange juice. “Better?” she asked.

Art did not answer.

“Maybe you should come back downstairs to our room. Janie’s room doesn’t suit you.”

Art glanced toward her to judge her motive. She was moving into that intractable age, he thought, when she was still pretty, but noticeably older. The short brush cut of her light hair made her appear more eager than she was. “I like it here,” he said.

“Did the heat help?” She crossed to the window and pulled the curtains slightly against the morning sun.

The washing machine thumped somewhere beneath them, and his pain conformed like a heartbeat to the throbbing walls. “Have you ever thought about moving?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Buying another house,” he said. “Pulling up stakes. Frank Lloyd Wright suggested that when you can see your neighbors’ house you should go farther into the country.”

“Where would we go?” Muriel asked, looking from the window.

“I don’t know. They play good squash in Toronto.”

Muriel turned toward him and smiled. “You can’t play squash forever,” she said, “and Frank Lloyd Wright is dead. Anyway, Toronto is hardly the country.”

“Then you like it here?”

“Yes, of course. Why?”

Art shrugged and took a bite of his egg.

“What do you think it is?” Art asked.

Dr. Grogan shook his head slowly and moved around the table. He was slightly older than Art, paunchy and soft-skinned. He looked over his half-glasses. “Can you sit up?”

Art sat up, and Dr. Grogan shined a light into Art’s eyes.

“It’s not my eyes,” Art said impatiently.

“Look past me.” Dr. Grogan leaned closer. “I didn’t say it was your eyes.”

Dr. Grogan checked Art’s ears and throat, and listened to his heart for what semed to Art like ten minutes. “Now this pain, you say, is in your lower back?”

“Right here.” Art stretched his hand around his waist.

“And you noticed it first this morning?”

“I played squash yesterday afternoon,” Art said. “The pain came early this morning.”

Dr. Grogan pressed the lumbar region with his fingertips, and Art held himself steady. “Lie down, please.”

Art lay on his back on the cold table. The doctor raised each of Art’s legs and pressed them toward his stomach.

“All I want is a pill,” Art said, “just to get back to normal.”

Dr. Grogan looked at him. “You can get dressed now.”

Dr. Grogan took out a prescription pad and sat down at a small table. Art climbed down and began to put on his clothes.

“It seems to be a form of virus,” Dr. Grogan said, glancing from his pad to Art and shifting his eyes over his glasses. “These capsules should ease the pain and let you sleep.”

“What kind of virus?”

“A virus is a mystery almost by definition. You seem to have a form of lumbar neuralgia which usually strikes older people. I’d caution you about these pills. . . .”

“I want a cure,” Art said emphatically. He glared at Dr. Grogan for suggesting he was old.

Dr. Grogan smiled briefly. “There is no cure in the sense of a disease. Your back has to heal. It may take weeks, maybe months.”

“But it goes away.”

“In the usual case it goes away.”

Art buttoned his shirt and, ignoring the proffered prescription, walked past Dr. Grogan and out of the examining room.

When he got home, Muriel was out. He mixed himself a rum and tonic and sat with the morning newspaper in the bay window overlooking the back yard. He did not care that inflation was worsening or that another taxi strike threatened the city. It hurt like hell to hold the paper with his arms outstretched. Finally he folded the paper and stared into the hazy, gray leafless trees on the horizon.

When the telephone rang, he did not answer it. Five minutes later, he answered it in the kitchen on the sixth ring. “Hello,” he said softly.

“Hello?” The voice was a woman’s.


“I have a collect call from Jane McNeal. Will you accept the charges?”

He relaxed and took a breath. “Of course. Janie?”

“Hello?” Janie’s voice came on, mixed with the noise of traffic.

“Hello, Janie.”

“Dad, what are you doing there? Is Mom home?”

“Which question should I answer first?”

“Is she there?” Janie asked plaintively.

“No, I don’t know where she is.”

Janie paused on the other end of the line. “Jees. . . .”

“Can I help?” Art asked. “Where are you?”


She was lying. It was not only the sound of the cars in the background, but also her tone of voice. “Where?” he asked again.

“Do you know whether Mom’s written me lately?”

“No. Is there some trouble?”

The line was silent except for the honking of a horn.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine

“You don’t sound fine.”

“No, really, I’m okay.” The tone of her voice changed to recitation. “My school work is better. It’s not such a bad place really. How are you and Mom getting along?”

“We get along very well. Why do you ask that?” Art thought the question strange, coming from Janie.

“Do you have the day off?”

“Not exactly. I have a backache.”

“Listen,” Janie said, “could you have Mom call me sometime?”

“Sure I can, honey, but. . . .”

“Thanks. I’ve got to go now. Bye.”

Art stood with the telephone pressed tightly against his neck, where he felt the blood pounding in his squeezed vein.

When he hung up, he went to Muriel’s desk in the den and looked through her papers. He found a couple of old letters from her sister, one from a college friend, some bills and catalogs—nothing that, if he had paid attention, he might not have known about. He opened one of the smaller drawers and, under some bank statements, found a brief note from Janie, postmarked five days before. Janie had asked Muriel to send her 300 dollars.

By four that afternoon Art was drunk. With each rum and tonic, he increased the proportion of rum. On his way back from making his fifth, he knocked over a small table and kicked it against the wall, shattering three of its legs. The pain in his back made him rage.

He had been upstairs and had torn apart Janie’s room looking for some clue. He searched the pockets of her summer clothes, had gone through every drawer of her dresser, every book and record in the shelf—hoping to find what? Drugs? A diary? Finding nothing made him furious.

Downstairs he had looked more carefully through Muriel’s desk. He had not tried to hide his act, but instead had tossed letters, pencils, drawersful of checks and bills across the den. Finally he had sought out the morning newspaper and ripped it apart, spreading crumpled sheets across the porch and the living room.

He sat amidst the debris, drinking and waiting for Muriel to get home. The house seemed cold, but he did not get up to turn up the heat. A shadow descended from the western hill, darkening the trees and the yard. He was surprised how early dusk fell in the country, and how quickly, once it had begun, the colors faded.

Then suddenly Muriel was in the kitchen rustling grocery bags, opening cupboard doors, “Art?”

He had not heard the garage door or her footsteps came up the basement steps.

“Art?” She came into the room and stopped.

He gazed across the sea of crumpled newspapers and lifted his glass. “Terminal illness,” he said. “Death.”

“My God, what is going on here?” Muriel’s eyes were still. “What did the doctor say, really?”

“Goes away,” Art said. “Usual case.” He swept his hand through the air along a slope from top to bottom. “Fades away.” He paused to see whether she had changed in any way since that morning. Her lipstick looked fresh; her short hair was neat. She still had on her green plaid slacks and gray sweater.

“My desk,” she said, hurrying across the room with clicking steps. “What were you doing in there?”

He took a long drink. “Research,” he said. “Janie called.”

His mind whirled with the rum. He alternated between questions and accusations, between shouting and whispering. Muriel’s contention was that she could not betray Janie, who had discussed matters with her in confidence.

“What the hell does that mean?” Art roared.

“Privacy. You know damned well what that means. You violated it.” Muriel crossed the room and sat on the piano bench facing him.

“I have a right to know.”

“We have a right to secrets,” Muriel said evenly.

Art stared out the large bay window into the darkened woodland. The pain in his back seemed to expand outward like a speck of light growing steadily brighter and brighter. His shoulders tightened; his legs became numb. He wanted to see Janie, to tell her what he had done and why, to explain to her, and to ask . . .but he was blinded by the light.

He stepped back from the window and gazed at his reflection. The shadowed black sockets of his eyes were hollow balls, and he turned slowly toward Muriel. “And you?” he asked softly. “How long?”

He spent the night in Janie’s room amidst the piles of clothes, records, books, and torn posters. He lay on the bed still dressed, with his eyes open. Dizziness, pain, snatches of conversation filled the waking hours. Sometimes he hung on the edge of sleep, but always he moved so he was conscious of the pain. Once, after hours of grim detail, he slid into the reverie of a game of squash. He entered the white court with his towel, his roll of tape, his racquet, and ball. A wave of nausea at the whiteness swept over him. The walls, the division of wall from ceiling and floor, were vague, blurred. The red lines which defined the game were meaningless, mere decorations upon the optical illusion in which he found himself. He walked tentatively. If he moved too quickly, he was certain to overstep the limits of the room: he would strike the solid white plane of space. Even the ball, scuffed white from the paint on the walls, seemed to vanish as he swung at it. He concentrated upon the bounce, confident that his senses would clear. His body took over, gaining a rhythm, as if he were playing a long point, a rally that would never end. He ran from corner to corner. His opponent controlled the tee effortlessly, volleying side-wall shots. Sweat broke on Art’s forehead as he chased down lobs and drop shots. White emanated from every angle.

Art sat up suddenly, chilled. He got up and went to the window. The night was quite cold, and he searched among the moonlit trees for an owl or a leafs falling. Nothing moved. The strange web of branches and shadows pressed into his mind. Frost was forming again on the grass. Little by little, invisibly, the stream was freezing.

He came downstairs at six-thirty. The empty rum bottle and the crumpled newspapers had been removed, and the room was clean. Muriel’s desk was neat. The shattered table lay on the landing to the basement steps.

He changed his clothes in their bedroom, where Muriel lay asleep. As he wrapped his tie in front of the mirror, she turned over and wakened.

“You’re going to work?”


“The back?”

“Better.” He lifted the knot of his tie to the vee of the collar. “I’m sorry about last night.”

He leaned down to the bed to kiss her. Then he went to the kitchen to get his breakfast.

On his way to the garage, he carried the broken table to Muriel’s car. He pressed the button and watched the slatted garage door roll up like an eyelid. He walked down the driveway for the newspaper.

His breath, wisps of fog, disappeared into the rising air. The grass was white. He shivered, for he had worn no coat.

The train was late, but he waited patiently on the platform. When it arrived, he boarded and found a seat, as usual. He stared out the window at the houses and the countryside, then leaned forward over the newspaper in his lap and held his body tightly against the pain.


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