By Vic Sizemore
I am playing summer tennis at Peaks View Park in the midday sun. Sweat runs inside my sunglasses, makes them slippery on my nose. My deodorant is beginning to fail and at certain swings of my racket, I catch of whiff of my stinking animal body. I take my time between volleys to get myself back to the baseline. Though I am the better player, he is several inches taller than I am, young and in better shape. He just dropped one over the net and I almost tripped trying to reach it in time. My knee and hip both ache from the jarring attempt.
The side parking lot has a steady flow of college kids here for disc golf. A boy smokes weed at his open trunk. A girl pulls up beside him. They gather their discs and head over the hillside toward the course.
I take him to deuce three times. Back at ad out, he slides a serve down the line and I swat it into the net. As we switch courts, I hold my racket out flat and he lays three Wilson balls on it.
I stuff all three balls into my right front pocket and lean my racket into the net. We both swig from our water bottles and rub the icy condensation on our faces. I take off my sunglasses and dry my face with my shirt. The man who just beat me is my son. Just through his first year of college, he is home for the summer. He takes a long swig of water and gazes out over the park.
While he is not looking, I size him up. Tall, lean but broad shouldered. Strong. In that moment, a memory hits me. I am racing my ex-wife J from West Union, Ohio to the hospital in Maysville, Kentucky, where the doctor on call, a stranger to us both, worked his rubber-gloved fingers in and out of her.
“He’s breached,” the doctor said, and he mashed and kneaded J’s stomach with such rough force, I worried he would injure the baby, who nevertheless stayed breached. They prepped J in a rush and performed an emergency C-section. I sat by her head and watched the procedure in the mirror above. The smell of singed flesh rose into the room as the hot scalpel cauterized the wound as it cut. The fatty tissue inside J’s split stomach was shockingly white.
A nurse spread the incision apart with a shiny steel tool, and the doctor pushed the fingers of both hands into the cavity of J’s torso and pulled out a red baby boy. His head was round, not squeezed into the shape of a banana by the birth canal, dark hair slimed down flat.
“You okay, dad?” a nurse said. “Do you need to sit down?”
“I’m okay,” I answered, staring at this creature.
Another nurse, on the other side, said, “You want to cut the umbilical cord, dad?”
I took the snips from her and cut the cord, purple and shiny as wet plastic.
The nurses immediately swept the boy off to the pediatrician’s table under a warming light, and the doctor immediately went to work stitching J back together.
“Dad,” a nurse said, “do you want to meet your son?”
On the table, the boy’s body folded itself back in half, as it was in the womb, heels to ears, no bigger than a bag of flour. His purple scrotum was swollen, full and tight as a new Hacky Sack. The warming light was hot on my forearm as I greeted him. He turned, squinted up at me, intense, confused.
As the memory flashes through my mind, the intervening nineteen years collapse on me, into this impossibly brief instant. This might be his last summer home, who knows. I want to grab him in a hug but I don’t.
Instead I walk to my baseline and say, “I’m going to play for real this time.”
He chuckles, nods, and spins his racket in front of him.
Vic Sizemore’s fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Eclectica, Sou’wester, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes. Sizemore teaches creative writing at Central Virginia Community College.
illustration © bioraven