Danny Montoya

A Short Story

Joseph Epstein

Baffled in the large section of Home Depot devoted to lighting fixtures and bulbs, Jerry Mandel has spent the last six or seven minutes trying to find small frosted 40-watt bulbs for the fixture over his wife’s and his bathroom mirror. Finally, he asks a young guy with a shaved head and a complicated tattoo on the left side of his neck wearing an orange Home Depot apron for help. “Mr Montoya is the lighting guy,” he says. “I’ll call him over.”

A minute or so later, a small man, dark, bald, chunky, wearing black-framed glasses and with a walk that has a bounce to it, arrives to ask Mandel what he’s looking for. 

“Sometimes they hide these things pretty effectively,” he says, after Mandel tells him. “But we’ll find ’em for you.” The name tag on the pocket of his apron reads “Daniel.” Mr Montoya. Daniel. Daniel Montoya. Danny Montoya. It takes a moment for it all to register. 

“Danny! Danny Montoya!” Mandel says. “Are you the same Danny Montoya I played tennis with back in the early 1950s at Senn High School?”

“I did play tennis at Senn,” he says. “Sorry, but I’m not sure I recognise you.”

“That’s all right,” Mandel says, “these days I often don’t recognise myself. I’m Jerome Mandel. Me. Jerry.”

As Danny Montoya stares at him, Mandel can see that he still hasn’t picked up on his name. “Oh, yeah,” Danny says, at last. “It’s been a long time.”

“Only half a century or so.” Mandel puts out his hand, and Danny Montoya shakes it. “What’ve you been doing?”

“Long story,” Danny Montoya says. “I’ve got a break in roughly half an hour. What say I buy you a cup of coffee at the lunch joint at Target next door? We can catch up then?”

“I’ll meet you there,” Mandel says.

“Meanwhile, let’s find you those bulbs,” says Danny, which he quickly proceeds to do. 

Fifty years ago Jerry Mandel would have traded his life for Danny Montoya’s without a second’s hesitation. Danny was the number one ranked boys 15-and-under tennis player in Chicago and its suburbs. The suburbs are important to mention, because tennis in those days was very much a suburban game, dominated by country-club kids with names like Vandy Christie and Gaylord Messick. Nationally, most of the main figures in tennis had names like Gardner Mulloy, Billy Talbert and Hamilton Richardson, though the two Panchos, Gonzales and Segura, were also on the scene. Like the Panchos, Danny Montoya, too, was everywhere taken for Mexican; or so at least Mandel thought before he first saw him. In fact, Danny’s mother was white and his father, who worked at the post office, was Filipino. He was a city kid — inner-city, we would now say — and played most of his tennis on public courts. His coach was his father. 

Danny was small and quick, graceful and savvy, knowing how to get the very most out of his game. He had dazzling footwork, and nearly perfect anticipation, so that he always seemed in the right place, his Davis racquet perfectly positioned to slap home winners with an ease that encouraged a sense of hopelessness in his opponents, making them wonder if learning how to play tennis in the first place had been such a hot idea. He made the half of the court on which he stood seem no larger than a ping-pong table, his opponent’s side larger than a football field. He was always in perfect control; he never beat himself.

This was in the days before metal racquets and tank tops and baseball caps worn backwards, and Danny, like everyone else then, wore all-white tennis clothes, which made his dark skin stand out all the more vividly. He had fine features, a winning smile, and glistening black hair that he brushed straight back. Standing at baseline, awaiting service, Mandel remembered how Danny would twist his racquet, sometimes giving it a double flip by slapping it at the handle, the way a cowboy might twirl his pistol before returning it to its holster, shuffle his feet, seem just a touch bored, and then take a high-bouncing serve and flick it cross-court with his amazingly accurate backhand or slash it forehand down the line for another winner. Without breaking into a smile, he would do another double flip of his racquet and walk over to take the serve in the ad court. 

Haughty didn’t describe Danny on the court so much as jaunty. He commanded the court, floating, gliding, seeming to dance — an intricate smooth Latin dance of his own devising — over to whack the ball precisely where he wished. He had textbook-perfect strokes and all the shots, including a drop-shot of such delicate deceptiveness that his opponents usually never saw it coming, and those who did weren’t able to get anywhere near it before it died after a spirit-deflating low bounce. His topspin lobs left opponents at the net feel pure dejection as they watched the ball sail over their heads. His serve wasn’t overpowering but always well-placed, and he never double-faulted. He appeared to be without sweat glands; in his combination of nonchalance and authority on the court, he was aristocracy in motion. 

Jerry Mandel discovered that he and Danny Montoya were born two months apart, and Mandel, as a boy tournament player who usually went out in the first or second rounds of local tournaments, watched Danny with an admiration bordering on worship. 

Mandel had taken up tennis at 13 — much too late, as he would discover — and for the next three years found that playing tennis was all he really wanted to do. He longed to be brilliant at it. Mandel was well co-ordinated, with a strong instinct for imitating style. Sport was all that was on offer when he grew up in West Rogers Park, and, like all the boys in the neighbourhood, from the age of ten or so he played the current seasonal sport — baseball, football, basketball — and played them all reasonably well but none dazzlingly. 

Indian Boundary Park, six blocks from the Mandels’ apartment, had four concrete tennis courts, lined up vertically, back to back, each enclosed within cyclone fencing, and one day Mandel and his friend Harvey Resnick, who lived only a block from the park, walked over to swat a few tennis balls. Mandel didn’t own a racquet, and used Harvey’s older sister’s. They played in gym shoes and jeans. 

Mandel wasn’t particularly good at the game at first, but that very first time out he watched some older boys rallying the ball back and forth, with smooth powerful strokes, and thought this was something he would like to be able to do. He liked the rhythm of the game, the sound of the ball against the racquet when it was hit solidly in the sweet spot, the clothes, the graceful elegance that playing it well brought. There may even have been an unconscious social motive behind the 13-year-old Jerry Mandel’s ardour for the game. Tennis, with its English, Wasp-y feel, suggested a significant jump from his own lower-middle to the
upper-middle class, from the Jewish to the gentile world. 

Harvey and Mandel played a few more times, and then Mandel bought a racquet of his own and a pair of Jack Purcell tennis shoes. He would wander down to Indian Boundary on weekends and watch the better adult players. He concentrated on picking up technique: their serving motion, the way they positioned their bodies before striking the ball, the short blocking stroke of the volley. He began to acquire a sense of the angles of the game, he picked up the chatter — “Let, take two”, “Ad out”, “Too good” — the hand movements, various ways to pick up a loose ball off the ground with one’s racquet without having to bend down for it. 

One day early in the summer of his 14th year, Mandel took the El to play with a friend on the clay courts of Northwestern University. The clay was a café au lait colour, freshly rolled and relined every morning by a man who looked as if, in another life, he might have been a hard-drinking naval chief petty officer. In the small clubhouse, where they assigned courts, collected court-rental fees, strung racquets and sold equipment, a sign read “Pro’s Helper Needed”. He inquired about the job. What it entailed was going out with the pro, who was also Northwestern University’s tennis coach, and collecting the balls he used when he gave lessons to children and housewives. The pay was $1 an hour, and you got to use the courts free, and a ten percent discount on tennis clothes and equipment. Mandel applied for and got the job. 

The pro was a heavyset man, who in the late 1920s had had a national ranking. He had a gruff voice and a kind heart. Mandel went out with him four or five times a day as he gave his half-hour lessons, collecting the loose balls the people taking lessons hit, picking up what he could from the fairly fundamental instruction: forehand, backhand, volley, half-volley, three kinds of serve: American twist, flat drive, slice. After a few weeks, the pro used Jerry to demonstrate the strokes he taught. 

When Mandel wasn’t collecting balls and demonstrating strokes, he played with people whose partners were late or failed to show up. Sometimes he hit balls with older guys who played on the Evanston Township High School team. He saved his small earnings and used them to buy a new Jack Kramer model Wilson racquet, a few white Lacoste shirts, tan-coloured Fred Perry shorts. 

Mandel began to develop a wider repertoire of shots, hit a harder second serve without too often double-faulting, developed a stronger backhand. Each night he took the El back to Chicago, a fine brown clay dust on his Jack Purcells. Daydreaming, he imagined himself brilliantly winning the fifth and deciding match of the Davis Cup for the United States or playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon. He must also have been undergoing a sexual awakening at this time, but now, in his memory at least, thoughts of tennis crowded out all others. 

That same summer Mandel began to play in local tournaments, in the public parks as well as at tennis clubs in Oak Park and River Forest. He didn’t have much success. He might win a round or two, but even players less good than he — who had less stylish strokes, less of a feel for the game — often defeated him. Mandel was too enraptured in his own fantasy of style. He wanted above all to be an elegant player; his opponents were content merely to win. 

That summer, too, Jerry Mandel first saw Danny Montoya, of whom of course he had heard; with fewer sports on offer in those days, Chicago papers covered prep and other junior sports more thoroughly than now. When he first saw Danny — in a tournament from which he, Mandel, had been eliminated in the first round at the River Forest Tennis Club — he recognised the game he himself longed to have. Danny had the style Mandel dreamed of, though in Danny’s case style didn’t keep him from winning. Danny won this particular tournament, beating a kid named Esteban Reyes who had come all the way up from Mexico 8-6 in the third set. He met Reyes at the net, shook his hand cordially, flashed his brilliant smile and walked over to his father, a small pudgy man who looked a lot like the Danny Montoya Mandel had met 15 or so minutes before at Home Depot. 

Mandel played on his high-school tennis team, which was no big deal, for tennis in the public schools of Chicago in those years was strictly a minor sport, at most an afterthought, like fencing or speed skating. The good junior tennis players were at New Trier or Evanston Township or from the western suburb of Hinsdale, where Claire Reissen, the father of Marty Reissen, who was later nationally ranked and would play Davis Cup, was the coach. Mandel played number four singles his sophomore year, and most of the kids he played from other schools — Roosevelt, Sullivan, Fenger on the far southside — wore black gym shoes and gym shorts with their boxer underwear sticking out at the bottom; black socks were not uncommon. All this was a long way from Centre Court at Wimbledon. 

Senn High School had a tennis coach who worked summers as the pro at the River Forest Tennis Club, a tall, white-haired, pink-faced, taciturn man named Major Singleton, known to everyone as Maj. Rumours had it that he had been a young flying ace in the First World War. (Mandel’s friend Barry Grolnik, in later years trying to describe him to a group of people who didn’t go to Senn, said, “You have to imagine a gentile John Wayne.”) The coach’s own tennis past was a bit unclear, though everyone who played tennis in the middle-west seemed to know Maj Singleton. One afternoon, decades later, Mandel heard Tony Trabert, on television, remarking that Stephen Singleton, in the umpire’s chair, was the son of Major Singleton, “one of the great gentlemen in the game.” 

Maj Singleton must have been the reason behind Danny Montoya’s transferring from Crane Tech, in the middle of the city, to Senn High School on the far northside in his junior year. The Montoyas lived a few blocks south of Madison near Western Avenue, a tough neighbourhood even then, and it may have been that Danny’s parents were worried about their son’s going to a school where gangs had begun to form and violence was more and more part of daily life for adolescents. Crane had no tennis team, but was noted for black basketball players, one of whom, Leon Hilliard, had recently replaced Marquis Haynes as the dribbling wizard of the Harlem Globetrotters. 

“Jerome,” the Maj said to Mandel one day in his office, “Danny Montoya is transferring to Senn. When he arrives, I want you to keep an eye out for him.”

“I’ll do everything I can, sir,” Mandel said. He played tennis for three years for Maj Singleton, and this may have been his longest speech to him, though once, in a doubles match against two kids from
Roosevelt wearing brown gym shoes, he gave Mandel and his partner, a boy named Mickey Hoffner, some advice having to do with the wind, which neither of them heard and both were too daunted by him to ask him to repeat. 

Senn High School was roughly 60 per cent Jewish, 40 per cent working-class Irish, Germans and Swedes, with six or seven black kids and no Hispanics at all. Mandel didn’t think of Danny Montoya as particularly ethnic — the word was not then in use — but chiefly as an amazing athlete. But that morning, even as Maj Singleton introduced them — “Jerome Mandel, Danny Montoya. Jerome here’s going to show you around” — Mandel sensed that Danny wasn’t going to be happy at Senn. 

Danny was wearing rust-coloured trousers, with outer stitching and severely pegged at the cuffs, a shocking-pink shirt with a Mr B collar (Mr B being the singer Billy Eckstine, That Old Black Magic man), and square-toed, blue-suede loafers. His hair was heavily pomaded and swooped into a duck’s ass at the back. The clothes had been bought at Smokey Joe’s, a zoot-suitery on Halsted off Maxwell Street. If Maj Singleton bothered to notice Danny’s clothes, he gave no sign. This get-up may have worked among the black kids at Crane Tech, but for Senn every item was wrong. 

Mandel used to eat lunch outside, at Harry’s, where the more with-it Jewish kids hung out. He didn’t fancy taking Danny out there with him, at least not in these duds. He walked him to his first class, and told him that he’d meet him for lunch at the entrance to the school’s cafeteria. In the cafeteria, Mandel asked Danny how things were going. 

“OK,” he said. “Not bad.”

“Anything I can do to smooth the way, let me know. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Thanks,” Danny said. “But do you think I can get something better to eat than this gunk?” He pointed down to his lunch tray, which had the sandwich called a Sloppy Joe on it and some very gloppy macaroni and cheese. 

“Tomorrow I’ll take you to a better place,” Mandel said. “Don’t be offended, but maybe you aren’t wearing exactly the right clothes. We dress a lot more casual here.” 

“Yeah,” Danny said, smiling. “I noticed. I feel as if I’m dressed for maybe the wrong play.” 

“Where did you get your backhand?” Mandel asked, changing the subject. “I’d kill a guy for your backhand.”

“Everything I know about tennis, I know from my father,” Danny said. “He worked as a locker-room valet at a ritzy tennis club in Manila — that’s in the Philippines — and picked up the game on his own. He spent a lot of time teaching me, beginning when I was three or four. I’ve got a brother Bobby, he’s only five now, you should see him. He figures to be a lot better than me.” 

The next afternoon, Maj Singleton called a practice at Indian Boundary to introduce the team to Danny. Everyone paired up afterward to hit some balls, and Danny and Mandel hit together. Rallying balls back and forth, Mandel felt himself getting into Danny’s rhythm, and how satisfying that rhythm felt! “Whap” went the balls Mandel hit, “pock” came Danny’s returns, all right at Mandel, so he scarcely had to move to return the ball to him. Whap, pock, whap, pock, Mandel could have stood out there on that court through the night, so fine did he feel rallying with Danny. 

When Mandel came up to the net, Danny provided him precisely placed lobs, so that he could hit practice overheads. He fed him volleys to his forehand and backhand sides. Mandel felt the level of his own game rising, just by being on the court with Danny. They played a set, which Danny won 6-2. Mandel wasn’t quite sure how he got the two games, but was very pleased he did. At the end, meeting at the net, Mandel was breathing like someone who had just completed a marathon, Danny was cool and smiling. 

On another afternoon, Mandel and Danny played doubles together against two other boys on the team, Tim Ritholz and Dicky Simpson. Danny was a perfect partner, unselfish, backing up Mandel whenever necessary, cheerfully congratulatory whenever he made a winner at the net. He made difficult half-volleys look easy. His sense of the angles of the doubles court — and doubles, he taught Mandel without having to say a word about it, was essentially a game of angles, geometry in motion — was perfect. Like all really good athletes, Danny had mastered form, and yet was ready to abandon good form when winning the point required it. In the few autumn practices the team had, Mandel, warming up with Danny, playing doubles with him as his partner, felt he was playing well over his head; and it occurred to him that exactly there, over his head, was the best of all places to play. 

Mandel and Danny had no classes together, but they met every day for lunch. Mandel never took him to Harry’s but instead to other places a little farther from school. Sometimes, when he had the use of his mother’s car — a 1953 Chevy Bel Air, cream-coloured with green trim — Mandel would drive off to Morse Avenue and they would have lunch at the Ashkenaz Delicatessen. Danny had long since changed his Smokey Joe wardrobe, and now came to school, like everyone else, wearing Levis and a V-neck sweater over a white T-shirt. If Danny made any other friends at Senn, he never mentioned them to Mandel. Whenever he saw Danny in the halls between classes, he walked alone. The darkness of his skin, made even darker by his long summers on the tennis courts, made him a fairly exotic figure. Mandel once asked him if he wanted to meet any girls, and Danny told him thanks but he already had a steady girlfriend in his neighbourhood. 

Danny’s happiness at Senn wasn’t a question Mandel felt he ought to ask. He wasn’t sure he was all that happy at Crane Tech, either, at least he never spoke fondly about missing it. With a Filipino father and a white mother, Danny would always, Mandel supposed, be without any definable group into which he could easily slip. What went on in the classrooms was of less than minimal interest to him. At their lunches together, Danny and Mandel talked chiefly about sport, girls, offbeat places in the great city in which they had both grown up. He never rationed his marvellous smile; his walk had a natural spring to it; he had enormous cordiality. If Danny was unhappy, he kept it to himself. 

When the tennis team held one of its autumn practices, Mandel usually drove Danny over to the Loyola El Station afterwards. One night, Danny had dinner at the Mandels’ apartment, and that night he drove him home. Dropping him in front of his building on south Hoyne, he was reminded of the toughness of the neighbourhood in which Danny and his family lived. Mandel in those days had begun reading the popular novels of that day, many of them set in slums, The Amboy Dukes, A Stone for Danny Fisher, The Hoods, Knock on Any Door, books that, as he would later understand, eroticised the lives of the poor. 

One Saturday afternoon in November, Mandel picked up Danny at his apartment. In the hallway, two mailboxes, sprung from their hinges, hung open. Unappetising food smells — cabbage, maybe — clung to the air. When he rang the bell, Danny came down, wearing a dark brown leather jacket, in which he looked great. He told Mandel that his parents were out back, and they walked around to the rear of the building, where Danny introduced him to his mother and father. 

Danny’s mother was hanging washing on a line in the concrete backyard. She was shapeless and not wearing any makeup. Her hair was stringy. She wore a gold cross over a housedress. She seemed worn-out, though she was probably then not more than 40. She said only that she was pleased to meet Mandel, and went back to hanging her laundry.

Mr Montoya, who was handing his wife clothespins, stopped to shake Mandel’s hand with enthusiasm. 

“Nice to meet,” he said, in choppy English. “Danny tell all about you. How kind you are to him. His mother and I grateful for this.” 

The neighbourhood, which seemed so menacing at night, in daylight turned out to be chiefly dilapidated. Windows on a number of buildings were boarded up. A six-flat apartment building on Danny’s block had had a fire, and no attempt was apparently being made to repair the damage. The charred ruin just stood there, like a blackened tooth in an already unattractive mouth. A few blocks to the west, across Western Avenue, Skid Row began, with red-faced drunks wandering the streets. 

Danny and Mandel drove two blocks over to Bell Avenue, where Danny’s girlfriend Claire was waiting for them outside the bungalow that she and her five brothers and sisters lived in with their widowed mother. Her father had been a Chicago cop, killed four years ago, as Danny had earlier explained, in the line of duty, while chasing a drug dealer down an alley off Wilson Avenue on the northside. Claire went to Immaculata, was Irish, and Danny’s age. She was small, dishwater blonde, and was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Young as she was, there was already something a little tired-looking about her around the eyes, or so Mandel thought. 

The three of them drove down to Maxwell Street. The day was crisp and sunny. Maxwell Street was humming. Older men grabbed their arms, telling them that terrific bargains were to be had within their dark clothing shops. Carts in the middle of the street were loaded with fake Zippo lighters, playing-cards with blurrily photographed naked women on them, eight-battery flashlights, condoms of the kind known in those days as French ticklers. A butcher sold live chickens. An ancient-looking black woman was seated on a kitchen chair hovering over a blanket on which she displayed dishes, some of them chipped, that she offered for sale. A Gypsy family sat before its doorway, hawking fortune-telling and suggesting that maybe more than mere fortunes could be obtained within. The smell of fried onions and Polish sausage on the open-air vendors’ grills suffused everything.

Danny, as always, seemed completely at ease. He bopped along, with his jaunty walk, very much with the show, laughing at the young black guy who stopped him in the hope of selling him a gaudy-looking wristwatch. Claire, less confident, clung to Danny’s arm. Mandel didn’t say much to her after Danny introduced them. He felt she looked on him as a rich (by her standard, anyway) Jewish boy from the far northside, possibly slumming, which, though he preferred not to think so, he may well have been doing. 

Danny bought Claire a necklace with a St Christopher’s medal. They walked over to Roosevelt Road, where Mandel showed Danny that he could get very slightly factory-damaged Florsheim plain-toed cordovan shoes for $10 at a place called Wolinsky and Levy. They stopped for hot dogs at the Vienna sausage outlet store on Halsted. They looked at the wild clothes on display in the windows at Smokey Joe’s. On the drive home, the three of them sitting in the front seat — this was before the age of bucket seats — Claire fell asleep on Danny’s shoulder, continuing to clutch his arm. “She’s not been feeling so good lately,” he told Mandel. 

Danny Montoya never actually played for Senn. A week or so after the return to school from Christmas vacation, he didn’t show up at his and Mandel’s usual meeting-place for lunch. The next week Mandel asked Maj Singleton if he knew anything about Danny’s absence. The Maj told him that Danny had decided not to return to Senn, but said nothing more. Mandel was disappointed but not completely surprised. Danny had no known social life at the school apart from him, which, for a naturally
gregarious kid, must not have been easy. He got no real coaching from Maj Singleton; nor did he need any. Maybe he just became bored with the long bus and El rides up and back to school. 

Mandel felt he ought at least to call Danny to ask what was going on. His father’s name (Gustavo Montoya) was in the book. He left messages for him with Danny’s mother twice, and only a week or so later did Danny call back.

“Yo, Jerry,” he said. “Got your message. What’s up?”

“Nothing much. What’s up with you?”

“It’s complicated,” he said. “I’m getting married. Two weeks from next Saturday. Claire’s pregnant.” 

Mandel didn’t know what to say. Congratulations, maybe? God, how terrible, maybe? 

He felt a combination of pity for Danny’s situation and also a touch of admiration for his entering adulthood so calmly. Mandel asked Danny if he were planning on going back to school anywhere else.

“Don’t think so,” Danny said. “Nothing much there for me. School’s not my best game. Don’t think I’ll miss it much. I’ve got a job. I’m working at Claire’s Uncle Matt’s grocery right now, till something better turns up. Gotta run. Stay in touch, OK?”

They didn’t stay in touch. Once married and working for a living, Danny, Mandel assumed, must have quit tennis, because his name wasn’t any longer in the papers in connection with local tennis tournaments that spring and summer or any time thereafter. 

Danny slipped prematurely into an adult world and Mandel was allowed to remain a boy for another five or six years, still searching for the perfect backhand, which he never found. He never found out what became of Danny and, though he may have had a stray thought or two about him over the years, he otherwise disappeared from his mind, until 25 or so minutes ago when he saw him, a salesman, at Home Depot. 

Mandel arrives at Target’s before Danny. Danny comes over; under the orange Home Depot apron he has shed, he had on a pair of khakis and a blue polo shirt. His hair, unlike Mandel’s, is still dark but thin in front. Mandel searches for the face of the boy in the man, but has difficulty finding it. Danny, he notes, seems to be doing the same to him. 

“Can I get you a coffee, a hot dog, or something?” Danny asks. 

“A coffee will be great,” Mandel says. 

“Maybe I’ll have just a coffee, too,” Danny says, touching his paunch.

“It took me a minute or two to bring you back to mind,” he says, when they return to the table with their coffees. “You went out of your way to be nice to me during the time I transferred to Senn. I don’t think I ever thanked you for that.”

“More like I was sucking up to you,” Mandel says. “I admired the way you played tennis tremendously. I can still picture you, like Muhammad Ali, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee. You were amazing.”

The man across from Mandel flashes that great smile and something of the boyish Danny Montoya returns. “I had a few good moments back then. Tennis was the only game our old man let my brother Bobby and me play. Baseball, football, basketball, everything else he put off-limits. Concentrate on one sport, he used to say, be really good at one thing. He wasn’t someone you defied. Not in those days anyhow. You still play?”

“I stopped not long after high school. My ambition was a lot greater than my talent, and since I could never shake off the ambition, I just quit playing.”

“What do you do? I mean for a living,” Danny asks. 

“I teach biology,” Mandel said. “At Loyola University. I mainly teach future high-school biology teachers.” 

“Where did you get an interest in biology?” 

“From not getting into medical school, to tell the brutal truth. After not being accepted to med school, I graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in zoology. Having nothing better to do at the time, I went on to get a couple more degrees in the subject. But what about you? What’ve you done all these years?”

“I’ve mostly been a salesman. I was 17 when my first daughter was born. Claire and I had three kids, all daughters. I nearly drowned in oestrogen. Did you ever meet Claire, my wife? She died two years ago, lung cancer.” 

“I met her once,” Mandel says, thinking it not worth reminding Danny of their day on Maxwell Street. “I’m sorry she’s dead.”

“Anyhow, after a bunch of odd jobs, I got into selling cars. Then I worked at selling home-improvements, which I did for more than 30 years for a firm called Royal Lumber. I did all right at it. I’m semi-retired. I’m working here at Home Depot part-time. I live with my second daughter, Jackie, in Buffalo Grove. She’s divorced with four kids of her own. I help out a little, financially and with baby-sitting. I have a daughter 52 years old. Jesus! Tell me, please, how the hell that happened.”

Mandel fills Danny in on his own family life, his two sons and now his five grandchildren, his two marriages. 

“Do you ever think about tennis?” Mandel asks Danny. “Do you ever play it? Do you watch it on television?”

“I don’t think about it or play it or watch it.” 

“You were really good, you know, amazingly good.”

“Nice to hear that, but if you think about it there wasn’t any place for me to go with it. If I’d come along 20 or 30 years later, maybe my father would have sent me to one of those professional tennis camps, where they take over kids at seven or eight years old. Maybe then things would have been different. But I probably got about the most out of the game I could. I was never a hard hitter. I could never have been a big-time player.”

“I recently read a book by an English mathematician,” says Mandel, a little worried about sounding pretentious, academic, “who, attempting to justify his own career in mathematics, says that only a tiny minority of people can do anything really well. When you were out on the tennis court you qualified as one of those people.”

“It wasn’t a very important thing to do,” Danny says. “It was tennis, only a game.” 

“That it was just a game doesn’t matter. I’ve never come close to doing anything in my entire life as well as you played that game.” 

“Come on! You teach at a college. I’ll bet you were a pretty good father, right? That’s not nothing. I’m a lot prouder of my daughters than I am of my having won a few tennis trophies when I was a kid.” 

“There’re lots of good fathers, good husbands, good teachers. But I never saw anyone fly over a tennis court as beautifully and happily in command of things as you.” 

“Forgive me for saying so, Jerry,” Danny says, “but I wonder if maybe you’re not laying it on a little thick. You’re not planning to sell me life insurance before I get up from this table, are you? You wouldn’t try to sell to an old salesman, would you?” He flashed the great smile. 

“All I’m saying is that for a brief stretch of time, you belonged to a small but elite club of people who did something magnificently well. Maybe it didn’t have world-shaking significance, but it was pretty damn rare.”

“Sorry, but I don’t quite see the point,” Danny says, glancing at his watch. “Yo, I’d better get back to work.” He stands up and drains off what is left in his coffee cup.

The two late-middle-aged men walk the 60 or so yards from Target back to Home Depot. 

“Good to run into you again,” Danny says. 

“Same here,” Mandel says. They shake hands. Neither says anything about getting together again. 

Driving home, Mandel realises that what he couldn’t get across to Danny is that, though his life has been easier than Danny’s, though most people might think the work he does more useful, he, Danny, for a few brief years, because of his magical talent was able to soar, while his, Mandel’s, life, lucky though it has been in so many ways, has been spent entirely on the ground. 

That night, Mandel’s wife asleep beside him, he lies on his back and tries to put all his problems out of mind: small money worries, squabbles in the department at the university, the news that his grandson may be dropping out of Yale because of depression. 

Mandel is back at Indian Boundary Park, where he is 16 and playing doubles with Danny Montoya as his partner. The sun is high in the sky, the grass outside the courts is dark green and dewy after a light rain, the balls make a crisp sound coming off the strings of their wooden racquets. The partners work a complex switching manoeuvre at the net that sets Mandel up for an easy overhead smash. Out on that court, Danny Montoya’s skill has, somehow, rubbed off on Mandel. 

His strokes are wonderfully smooth and his shots deadly accurate; he can make the lovely fuzzy white tennis balls do anything he wants with them. “Good serve, Jerry,” Danny says, smiling as he looks back from his position at the net after Mandel has served an ace, pow, straight down the centre service-court line. Danny double-flips his racquet, walks over to the deuce court, crouching, a few feet behind the net. “Do it again, kid,” Danny says, looking, briefly, over his shoulder. And Mandel does it again, and again and again, over and over, again and again. 

Even in the midst of this dream, he realises he is dreaming, and already feels a tinge of regret that he will have to wake. 

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"