The Male Animal

SHORT STORY by Willard Manus

They played paddle tennis every Saturday morning, four of them, longtime friends and opponents, weekend warriors, old Jews tottering around on arthritic legs.

The game, a truncated form of tennis, was played in Los Angeles with wooden paddles and a ball that had been punctured to make it less lively. They played doubles to cut down on running, but still had to be quick and agile at the net, fending off hard shots like a hockey goalie.

On this particular day, played in an early morning fog that was taking its time to lift, Herman was serving with his team down two games to none.

"Out!" Irving called from the far court.

"Out?" questioned Herman's partner Jack, a retired engineer who was slender, white-haired and mild-mannered.

"The serve nicked the line," Herman insisted.

"It was out by an inch--the size of your dick," replied Irving.

"At least I have a dick, which is more than I can say for you," Herman shot back.

"Shut up and serve," shouted Irv's partner Richmond, a semi-famous television actor.

Herman, a badly overweight man who still managed to play a strong game, served to Richmond in the odd court. The underhand serve was delivered with force and topspin, causing Richmond to tap it into the net.

"Way ta go, Herman," he said. "You lucky son of a bitch."

"Thank you for your graciousness."

Herman, wheezing a little from his chronic asthma, served to Irving again, another whistler which Irving also flubbed.

"I gave you a friendly call on that one,"Irv called loudly. "A lesser man would have called that one out."

"I think you mean a dishonest man, which is what you normally are."

"Can we play without talking?" Jack wanted to know.

"You're asking Herman that--a human noise machine?"

Fuming, Herman served to Richmond again, aiming for his weak point, his backhand,

This time, however, Richmond drew his paddle back and caught the spinner with perfect timing, sending it on a low line up the middle, right between Herman and Richmond.

"You don't have that shot," Herman snapped.

"I do now."

"What's the score?"

"Deuce. Serve it."

Herman bounced the ball while eying Irving balefully. Then he served with force again, putting the ball deep into the even court. Irving whacked it back with equal vigor, a return that sailed shoulder high at his opponents, both of whom laid off it. The ball carried toward the back line and bounced.

"Out!" Herman called.

"Out? How can you call that ball out?"

"Very simple--because it was out."

"How would you know? You didn't even turn your head."

"I didn't need to. The ball was clearly out all the way."

Irv turned to Jack. "How did you see it?"

"I thought it was a good call."

"How would you know what a good call is? You never made one in your life."

"Shut up and play," Richmond growled in his deep baritone voice, one that got him voice-over work on commercials and documentaries.

The next serve was to Jack, whose backhand failed him this time, causing the return to thud into the bottom of the net.

"Game," Herman said gleefully. "We're on our way."

"On your way to defeat."

"We're only down 2-1."

"Soon to be 3-1."

The players went to the sidelines to mop their brows, drink water and sit for a few moments.

"I'll be in Las Vegas next Tuesday," Herman announced.

"To gamble?"

"I'm not crazy. It's a trade meeting--association of tv and movie companies."

"What are you trying to sell this year?" Richmond inquired.

"Anything I can."

"Herman is responsible for most of the schlock on tv," Irv said.

"Don't I wish. It gets harder and harder for an independent salesman like myself to sell anything these days. The media giants have gobbled up all the stations and reduced the market by more than half."

"Are we here to play or talk business?" Jack asked.

"The way you play, you're better off focusing on business."

"Is that any way to talk to your partner?"

"I'm tired of people putting down television."

"Oh look, you've hurt the poor boy's feelings."

"What do you know about feelings?" Herman demanded of Richmond. "You wouldn't have any if they weren't written out for you."

They put down their water bottles and towels and took up positions on the court. It was Richmond's turn to serve. He was tall and left-handed and had a straight but hard serve which neither Herman nor Jack could handle.

"I stink," Herman said after whacking a ball wildly down the sideline. "I'm fat, asthmatic and out of shape."

He went to the bench for a puff or two on his pocket inhalator.

The sun was beginning to poke through the low, grey marine layer.

"Time to start lobbing the ball," Jack said. That was his specialty, tapping ball after ball high into the sky, right at the spot where the sun's glare was most intense.

"Hit it like a man," Irv cried angrily, having just been blinded by one of Jack's maddeningly soft aerial placements.

Jack made things worse by laughing uproariously when Richmond missed his next wicked lob.

"There he goes again, The Cackler," fumed Richmond.

"You missed your calling," Irv advised Jack. "You would have made a wonderful hyena."

They played on and as they did, the sun grew larger and hotter, making them sweat and breathe hard, sapping them of energy. The breaks on the sideline became longer; water bottles were emptied; ice packs were applied to aching knees and elbows.

The game went to 6-5, but then, with things at match point, Richmond missed an overhead smash, nicking the ball with the edge of his paddle and sending it flying wildly over the back line.

"Shit!" he growled, voice full of anger and pain. "How could I miss such an easy one?"

"Choke choke choke," Jack cried between loud cackles.

"Choke on this!" Richmond cried, clutching at his private parts.

"Do we play it out or go into a tie-breaker?"

"Tie-breaker!" came the concerted reply. Not only were they running out of water but their 70 and 80 year-old bodies were beginning to stiffen up and falter.

And when the overtime score went to 6-4, with Irv and Richmond needing only one more point for the win, Herman suddenly clutched at his left calf muscle.

"Uh-oh," he said. "I think I pulled something."

"Don't give us that," Irv said.

"I'm telling you, I'm hurting. I've got to stop."

"Can't you play one more point?"

"What do you want me to do, pull a muscle and be out of action for a month?"

"You don't have a muscle in that fat body of yours."

"The game is over," Herman announced. "It'll have to be called a draw."

"6-4 is not a draw. It may not be an official victory, but it's a victory nonetheless."

"A moral victory," corrected Irv.

"Moral, what do you know from moral, a man who worked in the weapons industry all his life?"

"Making America safe so that you can play paddle tennis every week."

"And bug out of a losing set," Richmond added.

"Up yours, bug out."

"No, up yours."

"Enough, enough," Jack said. "Time to go for bagels and coffee."

"Good idea," Herman said. "I'm buying."

"No, I am," Jack said.

"Like hell," Irv retorted. "It's my turn."

"Do we have to argue about this too?" Richmond asked.

"Notice who didn't even offer to pick up the check," Herman pointed out.

"I'm tired of all this yakking," Richmond said.

"No, you're not," Herman said. "You're just a cheapskate."

"A deadbeat actor."

"A has-been."

"I'm all of that and more," Richmond admitted. "Now can we go and eat?"