Monday, March 10, 2014

The Squash Ghost of 86th Street

For Tom Paige


It was difficult when the GM Nate Richardson stopped by Richard’s office and told him the 86th Street Squash Club had been sold to a group of condominium development investors. Richard had been at this club for over 30 years, he couldn't believe it had finally happened. He had heard rumors all winter about this deal but just kept doing his squash lessons, coordinating clinics and planning for a small tournament of professionals and amateurs, something the club hadn't done in a long time. He watched his courts dwindle down to 6 from over 13 20 years ago. And only 5 of those were international courts and the one, old American hardball court was used for storage. No one played hardball at his club or for that matter most any North American squash club.

Nate was from corporate, so he'd be taking a position at some other affiliate club, one of the newbie clubs that emphasized Zumba, yoga, kick boxing and the myriad of other useless fads people cling to in hopes of looking like the stars on the info commercials that endorse them. This club was special; it was in its heyday of 13 North American hardball courts, a Mecca for the best hardball squash players in the world at that time. Richard was never all that attached to people or things and was hardened to the usual sentiments about the glory days of hardball squash or for that matter anything else... He lived in the here and now, but when Nate left his office, his words, their reality, reverberated in his head.

"Business is business, it always is. The company has a couple of clubs in the suburbs mostly catering to juniors, you're welcome to transfer."

"Let me digest this first, if that's okay?"

"You wouldn't be head pro, but it might be good to start over again."

"Like I said, Nate, let me just digest this."

Nate closed the office door behind him. Richard flipped him the bird and muttered, "Asshole, go fuck yourself, starting over, you start over and see where you end up, the same prick, no talent asshole GM of any old sports club.”


Richard had finished up his last lesson, a late one, with a tough student, a hardened corporate attorney, who just wanted to be run around and beaten into submission. He'd happily obliged Marc Rose for what had become a few years already, they rarely talked about anything personal, and Marc Rose hadn't become any better at squash than the first day he came for a so called 'lesson'. On occasion he'd offer some advice to Marc, like "change the pace of the ball, you hit the same hard pace every shot --" Marc would cut him off and say just play. Richard knew if Marc just listened and tried to learn the game better he could be really good. But Richard would stop himself and think to himself, if Marc doesn't care why he should?

Richard sat at his desk, checked his emails, Aditya from rival Sports Club SF wanted to hit tomorrow. Nice, Richard liked that club. Aditya used to work for him at 86th street. Easy match for Richard, he liked toying with Aditya and frustrating him. Todd Binns was in town, the ex-hardballer from his pro past. Richard lost to him in the finals a long time ago; he thought it was the Denver open. Binns wanted to catch up on old times. Richard wasn't in the mood so declined, next time he told him. He then listened to his voicemails mostly requesting lessons, the usual freebie guest passes, Ariadne, that hot Spanish divorcee who fucked his brains out after her second lesson. He wanted to get rid of her, so he pawned her off on his assistant Gul.  He laughed, he liked the idea of Gul "humping" her, a word Gul  used and it was funny the way he said it, he just imagined his grandma's dog "humping" his leg whenever he came to visit. He thought, too funny Gul humping Ariadne's shapely leg just like his grandma's dog humped every visitor’s leg...

Then in an instant he suddenly froze, a look of utter and complete shock and disbelief ran through his body as if a bolt of lightning struck him.

"Hi Richard, thought I'd run up from Park Avenue tomorrow and hit with you, can you get a court and leave my name at the desk?"

Richard pressed pound on his phone and stood fixated at the receiver. "Shit, Shit, this can't be, what the fuck, it just can't be, haven't heard that message in nearly 15 years!"

He pressed one again to replay the message,

"Hi Richard, thought I'd run up from Park Avenue..." It's the voice, and the same message Tom used to leave him. He replayed it several more times.  He pressed nine to save the message and quickly gathered his things and headed out. He ran into Ariadne, who must have been lying In wait for him, she wasn't in gym clothes, and was dressed to the nines, she said, "Richard, is Gul upstairs?” She knew full well that Gul worked the afternoons.

He just brushed passed her and heard her cursing him in Spanish as he exited the club, something about how rude he could be sometimes. Worst mistake banging her, he should have known he'd never get rid of her. She was a huge disappointment, he thought she'd be wild and fuck his brains out, but all she did was lie their like a fucking corpse and then her perfunctory "ah, ah, ahhhhh" as she came. And plus, she smoked and he hated that. She'd light up smoke three puffs and extinguish this cigarette right on his night stand; he’d have to scamper to get her a saucer to serve as ashtray.

He needed to get home. He stopped on his way to pick up a fifth of Seagram’s Vodka; it's all he could afford. All those rumors about the club caused a lot of his lessons to cancel their memberships and go to the SF club. He knew SF could never compete with the history of 86th street.  The greats like Stu Goldstein, Sharif Khan, Mark Talbot, Ned Edwards;, the ‘Corsican Brothers’, Soli Mehta, and perhaps the greatest ever Jahangir Khan. And none could ever forget Tom Paige, he stood out among all of them – how many remaining clubs in the City had seen these players? He thought about Tom’s inexplicable voicemail, and how much he admired this man who died so young.


Richard woke in the morning, checked his alarm clock it was still 5:23 a.m. He heard a groan and almost leapt out of bed, but there was Ariadne, completely nude, sleeping with dried drool in the corner of her mouth. Her overly applied lipstick was smeared, her mascara was raccoon, and Richard could have died to remember how she ended up at his place and in his bed. He had to get her out of his apartment. The thought of her next to him was pure revulsion, he hated himself, and then, as if the last thing he remembered crept into his memory from the night before, that message, that voicemail, he knew it so well and he thought of that conversation with Nate Richardson -- it all flooded his mind, just then Ariadne let out a snore. God damn how stupid he could be. How the fuck did she end up here!?

Richard went into the kitchen his head ached the room was still spinning, he had to get to the club and coach the Brentwood girls’ team at 630 a.m... He was so nauseous and hung over; he poured some tomato juice and almost a cup of vodka. He popped 4 aspirins and drank the Bloody Mary. He packed his bag, went into the shower and then dressed and left for the club.

He left a note for Ariadne, told her he'd call her later. But he knew he hated seeing her hated having her in his life. He went to the club and when he reached his office he thought the time between the last time he listened to the message and now would set it all straight.

"Hi Richard, thought I'd run up from Park Avenue..."

He hung up, his early lesson was at his door with a c'mon, let's go look.


It was late; he had stayed in the office after his last lesson. He was tired and dosing off and on. He then heard out of nowhere the sound of someone hitting the ball on the far end of the courts. "What the fuck, this is really annoying."

He stormed out of his office, and headed for the court; he heard these bullet sounding shots. These people are so fucking rude he thought. But the sound was from the court used for storage. He stood at the door to the old court, the sound stopped. He was stupefied. There wasn't any room to play on that court it was packed with old equipment and spare parts for the exercise equipment... It was dark, the light from the windows peered through so he could see the court without turning on the main switch. Then he heard the muffled sound of a crowd applauding and he heard, he swore he heard, unless he had gone crazy:

 "Page game 3 15-11, he leads 2 games to 1."

The skin on his body crawled from the tip of his head to the ends of his feet, he shuddered, "Hey Richard, I'd like to run up from Park Avenue..."

Richard stumbled away from the court and gasping for air went back to his office and tried to gather himself, he needed a drink to settle himself; this is weird shit, he thought, what's going on. And then he heard that sound, the ball hitting the front wall, it wasn't how a ball hits now, the softball, but he heard the familiar thud of the 70+ hardball explode with each shot. He just stayed rooted where he was. He was paralyzed with fear. He muttered, “it’s just I had too much to drink, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating.” Isn't anyone just someone in his memory or still better his imagination? Maybe he was losing it over what Nate has said, after all most of his adult life he'd spent at this club. Maybe the news was too much for him, that's it, something snapped. And he was drinking again. But how do you explain the phone message. He racked his brain thinking of someone else he knew from Park Avenue, then it sort of dawned on him, Park Avenue went under years ago, it didn't exist anymore.

He needed to go home, just get hammered and try to forget all this stuff with ghosts and haunting, hopefully pass out and wake up and this will all be forgotten or just a weird dream.  He called Ariadne, she answered, apologized that she couldn't meet up with him. He knew Gul must be with her.  Served him right, he thought, and he turned out the light and left for home.


He woke from a dream, the room was spinning, and he’d had too much to drink and passed out. He looked at the clock 3:21 a.m. shit, he had to be at the club for the girl’s team early and he was still hammered. The dream. Tom Paige had called him and wanted to come up to 86th Street to hit, he jokingly said he must run up from his Park Avenue club like he always did, sort of to tease Richard that  he could run the three miles like nothing and get on court, do some exhaustive drills, and still thrash Richard. Then he was playing Tom in a tournament at 86th street, he was so nervous he had made it to the Quarterfinals for the first time ever beating the likes of Rob Dinnerman and Todd Bins, in the dream. The details of the dream were so real it was as if he was watching a YouTube version of it, but he didn't have a YouTube version -- no one filmed these matches.

In the dream he glanced over at Tom as he came through the back door of the court. The crowd of about two hundred spectators was crammed into the small gallery. Page was loved by so many fans. Even though Richard was an assistant pro at 86th street the crowd was simply there to watch Page. He relived some rallies, real and imagined, but the dream went on and on it was amazing, he felt in the dream like he hadn't felt in years, then he heard in the dream, 15-11, Page leads two games to one. He looked up at the gallery and there was his wife and daughter, like in a photo, she was smiling at him and his little daughter of 3 was squirming in her lap trying to get down. His wife whispered something to his daughter and his little girl abruptly turned and blew him a kiss and smiled.

He was soaked in sweat, and he tried so hard to cry, he wanted to sob, to let go with uncontrollable sobs. He knew why it was that terrible and horrible feeling of having something so precious and wonderful and then losing it. The emptiness was a bottomless pit in his heart. He was so happy in the dream, but that's just it, a dream mixed with some memory and a touch of desire, which he kept in check because he knew he couldn't have what he wanted, he couldn't have it ever again, it was gone. 86th street would be gone too.


Ariadne had called him and left six voicemails. He was avoiding her and just deleted all her voicemails. She then started texting him, he responded with “coaching will talk later…”

She eventually showed up in the evening when he was taking a break before the B level round robin and listening to music and having a sandwich. He was listening to Dylan’s bootleg series and keeping his mind off everything.

“What, Babe, you don’t seem happy to see me.”

“I’m busy –“

“Hey, Richard, I’m not asking for anything you know, but just tell me if there’s something in this for us, we’re adults…”

I don’t know, honestly it’s me you’re great and –“

“If I’m so great why aren’t you hot pursuing me and thinking about me all the time instead of only when you’re drunk and blind to anything?”

“I’m sorry, really sorry, it’s me, not you.”
“If there’s nothing going to happen with us I am going to go with Gul, he’s really sweet, I like how he adores me and just appreciates me, but really Richard, I’d die for you if you asked me.”

“No, Ariadne, don’t do that, please.”

“Bye Richard, I won’t be doing lessons with you anymore. And Gul probably hasn’t told you, but he’s taken a job at the new club in Long Island City. I’ll be going there from now on. It was real, Richard.”

She walked away, Richard was relieved, actually happy to be rid of her, he kept thinking he only wanted her when he was stinking drunk and she was just someone , anyone, to keep the darkest urges away, to provide some thin thread like a lifeline to where he was lost.


As the last of the round robiners bade him good night Richard sat in his office. He knew what he had to do, he didn’t want to and it was leaving a pit in his stomach, he wanted to bolt out of the club and hit his liquor store, buy his fifth of vodka….but not tonight, he had to go and step into the old American court used for storage.

He must have dosed at his desk while surfing the NET. He had been reading Paige’s heartfelt obituary in Squash Talk. It seemed like yesterday, Tom’s death and then a few weeks later the accident. He woke with a start, he heard the rhythmic ball striking the wall, he ran his hand through his hair, tried to get his bearings, damn, he thought, I need a drink badly. He got up and tried shaking his head to and fro as if trying to shake free of something that ensnared him. He went out his office and headed towards the court. The sound of the ball became louder and louder, he heard the crowd, it cheered then settled to a quiet murmur. It seemed the ball rhythmic striking had changed he knew what was happening. Suddenly as he peered through the open door, the court was clear, the lights were bright, the red boundary lines brilliant. He could see Tom as clear as the day that it was. And there he was, Richard, on court sweating profusely, “Page 15-11, he leads 2 games to 1.” H he looked into the gallery, he had to, just like in the dream; he looked into what was once his happiness and his wife, so beautiful and young and his little girl. His wife whispered something in his daughter’s ear and she looked to him, smiled and blew him a kiss. His heart would surely break and just when he thought it would Tom patted him on the backside ever so slightly with his racket and his voice, calm, serene, and clear like a beautiful stream,

“They love you very much, I know, they really love you.” He smiled.

“That’s the kind of love that has real power. You know, Richard, the power there is in love like that. A man can do just about anything with love like that.”

“Tom, I can’t, I just can’t.”

“Sure you can finish up the match you are only down 1-2. You played beautifully, damn Richard, give it your best, don’t give up – by the way, tRichards for this, for coming out and playing like this, it feels great, it’s like pure you know, the stream was fucking muddy for so long, today it is clear, cold, perfect in the afternoon sun, and the meadow in which that clear stream runs -- they love you Richard, they really do. Let’s finish it, make a match of it.”

The match played out in Richard’s head, he put everything he could into it. “Page 21-20, he wins 3 games to 1”.  Richard fell to his knees, he looked up into the gallery, his wife held his daughter in her arms were smiling at him. His wife always gave him a thumbs up when she liked what he said or did or had written.

“I love you. You are my life, my love, both of you, you’re the air I’m gasping for right now.” Tom looked at Richard and smiled and then disappeared out through the narrow short doorway, he ducked his head and was gone. The gallery was dark and quiet.

He was still on his knees until they began to hurt. He was crying he didn’t mind it, he was crying, the years of pain flowed from his hurt. He knew he had to write, write about them, tug on the thread and see where it leads him, that’s all he could ask for or anyone could of him, just tug on the thread and see where it leads him to.


*** The people mentioned in this story are fictional characters with a few exceptions, mostly some mention of the great Professional Hardball players. I saw Tom Paige at Manhattan Squash in the Old Grace building many years ago, a stunningly beautiful club. He was playing Gul Khan, the club pro at the time. I had never seen anyone play hardball like that and hit the ball so hard. It was really something. I never forgot that. While I switched to softball soon after that and never looked back, with the announcement that the one time Mecca of NY Squash, 86th Street, will eventually close, I started thinking about my old hardball days. I followed all those great players, it was something special. The eventual loss of 86th Street is like losing one of the few historical monuments to a game once so grand and incredible. James Zug’s phenomenal book, The History of Squash, captures this bygone era far better than I could hope to.












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