May 1999

Gilbert Allen

Gilbert Allen Gilbert Allen's latest book of verse is Commandments at Eleven (Orchises, 1994).  New poems have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review and The Cortland Review. Allen's short stories have received the South Carolina Fiction Project Award on four occasions, most recently in 1998.
Looking for Molly    Click to hear this poem in RealAudio

I met her where I meet them all, in my office.  She was sitting between her parents on the leather sofa. I was behind my desk — Danish oak covered with a green felt pad that I've marked to resemble a miniature tennis court. I folded my hands on the service line and smiled. "So what made you decide on Rick Vandaway?"

"We were thinking of Bollettieri," her mother confessed, playing with an engagement ring the size of a small acorn. "But we heard you were better with girls."

The air conditioner was humming behind me like a cello. "You heard right."

"We're from Tennessee," her father said. "We thought Hilton Head might be cooler than Florida."

The mother was staring at the life-size photograph of me shaking hands with Stan Smith after our Forest Hills match in 1971. I was grinning. He wasn't. He'd won. I hadn't. Wimbledon by Wednesday, my advertising mantra, dominated the blue sky.

"We wanted someone with experience," she said, turning to her daughter. "Someone who knows how to deal with the pressure out there."

I nodded sympathetically, but Molly still hadn't said a word. "And what do you want?" I asked her.

"She wants to improve," her father said, putting his hand over her shoulder. Molly wrapped her bare arms around her waist.

Maybe I'd set the thermostat too low.

"She's number nineteen in the state," her mother said. 

Never trust state rankings. They're usually made by committees of parents.
"She's going to college this fall," her father said. "We want her prepared for what's coming. Drills, challenge matches. Things like that."

I handed each one of them a four-color brochure on glossy paper. "It sounds like you'll need the Full Tournament Package. Computer generated fitness training and biomechanical instruction. I guarantee a one-hour semi-private lesson each day."

"With you?"

They always ask that. "If necessary." I flashed my Wimbledon-by-Wednesday smile. "With The Vandaway Method, my associates can take care of most contingencies. In difficult cases, they consult with me."

"That sounds reasonable, Mabel."

"Drills and match play every afternoon. And guaranteed placement in the main draw of at least six sanctioned tournaments. No qualifying rounds. I provide transportation, food, lodging, stringing, and emergency racket replacement." I noticed Molly's $80.00 Fila blouse. "Everything but their clothes."

"What are we talking here, Rick?" The father had a pretty good smile himself. A fellow entrepreneur.

"Nine thousand nine-ninety. That includes everything for the summer. No hidden costs. Unlimited calls to your home number on my WATS line."

"That's a nice feature, Brian." She turned to her daughter. "Remember that, dear."

Molly was still studying the brochure. Most people just glance at the pictures. When her mother gently pulled it away, she looked up. Her smile was absurdly, beautifully white against her tan. "I really love tennis, Mr. Vandaway."

"Rick," I said, putting her father's check beneath the USTA gold championship ball that I use as a paperweight. Since I'd have won the Hard Court Doubles in '72 if my partner hadn't sprained his ankle in the finals, it really isn't false advertising. I handed Molly her medical release form. "You've come to the right place."


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After her parents left, I had Sanchez take her out to Center Court. That's where I start all of my tournament students. Even though the stadium's empty, it gives them a high to be hitting where they've seen Stefan and Steffi on ESPN, kicking my former students' behinds.

Sanchez came back with her half an hour later, grinning like a diminutive ape. His chocolate t-shirt was still dry. Molly looked like she'd taken a shower with her clothes on. When I told her to go outside for a Coke, she put her Prince Graphite jauntily on her shoulder, the racket head hanging down like a hobo's rucksack. She could have been a little kid running away from home, confident she'd never get any farther than the end of the block.

I handed her two quarters, then closed the door. "How'd she do?"

Sanchez stood on his tiptoes, stretching himself to 5'4" — which is just about the average height of my staff. I call my associate pros The Trolls. They're hand-picked for incongruity. When an aggressive lawyer in the Advanced Adult Clinic sees them, he's thinking Easy Money. (On the first day, everyone can do a Pro Challenge. You win, you get a hundred bucks off your bill. You lose, you pay the pro for a series of private lessons. In seven years, we're leading, 961 to 3.)

Sanchez returned to his heels. "She stroke you pretty good, Rick. But she no move you around too much."

On his good days, Sanchez has a blistering one-handed backhand and the emotional maturity of a five-year-old. I find Hispanics with a highly developed sense of irony difficult to decipher, even under ideal circumstances. I'd have to check out Molly myself.

When she'd finished her Dr. Pepper, I walked her back to the stadium court. Sanchez hadn't bothered to pick up the tennis balls. He tries to pass off his laziness as a form of mystical intuition — a regular Gabriel García Márquez in a jockstrap. So I grabbed my old Dunlop 200G from beneath the umpire's chair and said, "Let's go for it."

After five minutes, I saw the point that Sanchez had so indelicately implied. Molly's strokes were technically perfect. She'd received top-flight instruction, probably since she'd been old enough to crawl onto the court behind her parents' six-car garage. With her hair knotted in a pink ribbon, she resembled the young Chris Evert in a slow-motion replay. Backhand, forehand, backhand, forehand — a ball machine with a brassiere, just as long as I kept them within easy reach. When she was thirty, she'd have three kids and be number one on the women's ladder at the local country club.

I brought her to net with a short slice, then returned her excruciatingly correct, paceless volleys six inches wider each time. The twelfth ball skittered off the edge of her frame into the grandstand.

"Oh wow, Rick." Sweat had nearly washed off her mascara, streaking the sides of her perfect face. "That was awesome."


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Three weeks later I sat down with Heather in my office, quietly celebrating our birthdays with a bottle of bubbly. Taylor '92, Brut. Heather's been with me ever since she dropped out of Stanford a couple years ago. In '73 I was magna cum laude. Comp Lit. Five, maybe six times she's slept over at the — no, I shouldn't say that.  Heather doesn't close her eyes.      

We were both a bit giggly when I heard a soft knock at the door. "I’ll get it," I said.

It was Molly. After I motioned her inside, I saw her mouth drop open. When I turned around, Heather was refastening the first three buttons on her blouse. She must have undone them on the way to the door.

She smiled evilly at Molly on the threshold. "Thanks, Richard."

Nobody ever calls me Richard.

Molly wanted to talk about her forehand. She was considering a change to a Western grip. I advised against it. It would decrease her flexibility from poor to pathetic, and Molly didn’t have the aggressiveness to take advantage of any openings that the new power might produce.

"Let’s sleep on it." I pointed to the champagne. "Are you 18 yet?"

"Not until July."

What the hell, I poured her half a glass. The drinking age here is 21 anyway. "Tell your parents and I’ll deny everything," I said, but I wasn’t worried. Molly hadn’t used the WATS line since she’d arrived.


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That evening I sat on my oceanfront deck, watching the palmettos sway like anorectic dancers. I was on call, but I was thinking about Molly. My first hunch had been right. In three weeks she hadn’t shown even the capacity for improvement. By the standards of tournament tennis, she was clumsy, foolish, and short. She didn’t have the strength or the creativity to control the flow of play, and she lacked the speed and stamina for a defensive game. Pretty, but not really what you’d call...

The portable phone rang. It was one of my alumni in California, asking for advice on his backhand. Rick’s Fix, my telephone coaching service, is open from six to eleven, Eastern Daylight Time. Call before that and you’ll get the answering machine. We take all major credit cards.

"Keep your elbow closer to your body, Horace," I intoned. "Make it brush your hip on your pivot if you have to."

"What if the ball doesn’t go where I tell it?"

"Extend to the target on your follow through." That’s virtually begging them to hit the ball into the court, but any decent teaching pro can tell you it works.

"Thanks, Rick. I think I got it."

"I have your card number." I did some mental mathematics. It was five o’clock in Santa Barbara, almost prime time. "Knock ‘em dead tonight, Horace."

"Wimbledon by Wednesday!"

I returned his valediction before I hung up.


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Molly utterly lacked imagination, so I decided to go with that for a while. On the lowest level of women’s tournament play, aerobic conditioning can win a few matches, particularly on soft courts. I put Molly on the routine we call The Wile E. Coyote: five-mile runs and Stairmasters, alternating days. Then I booked her for a full schedule of clay-court tennis. Her first tournament would be on her birthday, July twenty-first.


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We drove to Jacksonville on Route 95, with Heather and two girls who’d be playing in the 14’s. I was pretty sure either of them could beat Molly, who’d be joining Heather in the main event.

I’d called Bobby Parker, the tournament director, the week before. I’d just wanted to make sure Heather and Molly didn’t get put into the same half of the draw. It was, technically, improper, but in the small tournaments it’s done all the time. Besides, Bobby’s erratic overhead had cost us the third-round match of the U.S. Clay Court Doubles, just before I’d switched partners. It was twenty-five years ago to the day, so I figured he owed me something.

"No problemo, Rick. Anything else I can do for you?"

I succumbed to temptation. "Bobby, this new girl really isn’t very good."

"How bad is she?"

"Well, she looks like she knows what she’s doing. She just can’t do it." As an afterthought, I said, "It’s her birthday, for God’s sake."

I could imagine Bobby’s smile. Now I owed him one. "I’ll take care of it," he said. "No problemo."


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I could see the tightness in Molly’s face in the van’s rear-view mirror. To get her into The Vandaway Zone, we played Musical Trash when we hit the Florida line. It was me against all of them. Heather was serving first. She grabbed my hand from the steering wheel and pointed to a silver flash on the grate of a storm drain. "Coors to you, the clean of it."

"All night through, the fresh of it," I sang, blushing. Heather has a way of twisting things around. "One-love, Vandaway."

Darla, a thirteen-year-old with a vicious topspin forehand, came next. She went for a yellow novelty cup skittering in the wake of a Camaro in the left lane. "Have it your way."

"At Burger King now," I said. "That was a sitter. Two-love, Vandaway."

Finally it was my serve. I waited for the right plastic bottle. "Pepsi Cola hits the spot."

"That’s no fair," Darla said, pouting like Martina Hingis. "Hammer never said that."

"Older men don’t have to be fair," Heather said. "Just look at Jimmy Connors."

I kept my concentration. "Twelve full ounces. That’s a lot. Game, set, and match, Vandaway." I pulled onto the exit ramp. "Welcome to Jacksonville, ladies."


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Heather was, well, angry. After her shower she put on her shortest dress and headed for the lounge of the Ramada Inn. "Don’t wait up," she yelled from the hallway. I told her I wouldn’t think of it.

I’d watched Molly’s match instead of hers. Bobby’d put Molly on an end court to minimize her chances of getting The Concrete Elbow. I don’t know where he found the other girl. She was just like Molly, only worse. Watching them go at it was like listening to a good 45 on 33 RPM. I was the only one in the temporary bleachers.

Heather walked by after she’d lost her own match with the number two seed. At the time, Molly was up a service break in the second set. She’d won the first 7-5.

The other girl let one of Molly’s weak passing shots go by, praying it would float long. It landed four feet inside the baseline.

"Luck of the draw," I whispered.

"You’re despicable," Heather said. "I should report you to the USTA."

Molly won on her third match point. She consoled her opponent, then threw her racket high into the air, hugging me before it hit the soft Har-Tru. "Wimbledon by Wednesday," I said.


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After we’d settled Darla and Annette in their room and made sure the TV was working, I took Molly out to celebrate. I figured we’d be safe in the dining room while Heather was boogeying in the lounge at the other end of the building.

We had a candlelit table at the edge of the atrium. In that long white dress Molly looked as if she’d died in 1925 and gone directly to the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. She was radiant. How could she be so in love with a game she couldn’t possibly win?

"I was proud of you," I said. "Most women don’t do so well on their first try."

Our minds were Perrier-clear. Molly had her second-round match the next morning. She’d be facing the fourth seed. With luck, she’d get about six points.

She lowered her face beneath the candlelight. "I did it for you," she whispered.

"I don’t believe in favors," I said. "If you can’t do it for yourself, try something else."

After I’d kissed her, Heather was standing at our table. She must’ve been filing her nails in the atrium since we’d arrived. It took her about twenty seconds to tell Molly everything about her first-round win. Then she called Molly a name I wouldn’t have guessed either of them knew. Sort of a combination between a vagina and an old-fashioned frozen dessert. I’d only heard it two or three times myself — and never south of Philadelphia.

After she’d knocked over an empty chair and left, I paid the check and walked Molly into the shadow of an enormous philodendron. I knew what I had to say, but I couldn’t say it. I told the truth, plain and stupid. "You try so hard. I wanted to do something for you, Molly." More stupidly, I kissed her again. She thrust her tongue into my mouth, fiercely, then broke away.

"Am I any good at that?" I couldn’t see her face, but I knew she was crying. "What’s my potential, Rick? In your professional judgment?"

That hurt me. "I can’t teach talent," I said.

And she ran away, as fast as she could in a dress that went down past her ankles.


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I telephoned her parents, of course, and told them what they needed to know. They traced her to Atlanta, where the trail of credit-card slips went cold. They’ve hired a private investigator, the one they’ve used before. They have complete confidence in his abilities.

But I’ll find her first. My clearest picture of Molly is as a teacher, patiently working with the Ten-And-Unders on an outside court after she’d finished with her Stairmaster for the day. She took her rackets with her. She must’ve gotten a job as an assistant pro so she could hop off her American Express.

I have friends in Atlanta — enemies, too, but that’s another story. And I’ve come up with an offer nobody could refuse. A featured spot in my next videotape on competitive mixed doubles. Aim for the Dress. With ten percent of the net.

The rest I’m splitting with Molly. She’ll be terrific.

I’ll get the word out, send some 5x7's to the bigger clubs. If that doesn’t work, there’s always the WATS line. I figure I can find her in one week — ten days at the max. No problemo. You can bank on it.

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Gilbert Allen: Fiction
Copyright © 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SevenThe Cortland Review