The backboard, the one behind the tennis courts and near the lake, was an old thing. Very old, maybe older than tennis itself. And always damp. It slunk off its chain link fence, a sopping mossy giant with no posture. Piles of leaves clotted its bottom, big drifts that hid skeletons of mice and bleached airless tennis balls, torn underwear and wrinkled condoms. The board curled down there, its nonexistent feet crawling back up the fence, trying to escape the muck.
Despite its ruin, there was an air of ultimate reality to the board, of a reality behind reality. Trees bowed their branches to it. The sun left it in a permanent shade. The surrounding beach and parking lot, even the far-off picnic tables- all seemed aligned towards it, pointing at it.
Even that early Sunday spring morning, Mark Gourde, an eighth grader from the local middle school, knelt before the giant clumsy thing with his head down. He had cut his leg open from the knee down the shin trying to return a corner shot, and now he sat on his good leg, prodding the gash with his fingers.
Up to then, the ball had been bouncing between his racket and the board with a weird ease. The volley had lasted for nine and a half minutes. It was magic to the thirteen-year old, who could barely keep one going for more than a minute. But not the sun or sweat getting into his eyes was going to trip his backstroke.
Then he lobbed the ball towards a rotting hole above the center of the board, a place where the wood had splintered outward. As he drew his arm back to catch the return, Mark saw the dark intestines of shadow coiled up inside that hole, and he just knew his luck was spent. The ball hit an ugly spike of wood. And it went.
Mark dived to return it, dragging his left leg across a carpet of tiny broken glass and hot asphalt. The ball hit the top of his racket and shot into the air. Mark lost sight of it, gasped and fell, lying on the court for a minute, cool blood trickling into his sock.
“God- goddamn it.” He pinched his wound, hard as he could, trying to cauterize it with raw finger pressure. But the blood continued to flow, chugging down into his shoe. Mark grabbed his shirttail, diapered the gash.
Getting the wound somewhat under control, he thought about his tennis ball, lost beyond the board. He would have to jump the fence and search the woods for it. The thick briar thorns would tear him up, and he would probably swallow a half dozen spider nests. More than likely, his raw ankles and shins would find some poison oak.
“Pain in my goddamn ass,” he muttered, bearing down hard on the wound.
While he knelt, relishing his opportunity to release some pent up cussing, the board did something it was known to do every once and a while, especially on late summer nights and early spring mornings. A small thing, maybe- but enough to stir the ancient leaves, even void sawdust through its holes- and make some adults walking by jump a little.
All the kids knew what the board did though. They accepted it.
The board began to hum.
Hrmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmfmfmfmf, it said, like a cicada that had swallowed a car battery.
Adults thought it was some underground cable, some faulty wiring in the earth. It happens, they said, but every year they put off digging underneath the board in fear of finding out for good.
On the other hand, the kids knew it was the board, singing a dirge. In fact, rather than fear it, Mark felt a little disgusted with the humming. It had that creeping feeling of something lonely trying to communicate from faraway. It made him think of that awful kid in his grade, the one with the hair pasted to his head, dry scabs running down the sides of his nose, sobbing in the locker room or at the back of science class- his lame attempts at socializing. Just like what Mark felt the board was doing, only the board lacked a throat or mouth.
“Shut it,” Mark whispered to the thing.
The board went on hrrrmmmmfmfmfm-ing.
“F-fucking bastard,” Mark replied.
That was when Mark realized he was not alone at the courts. Another boy had been watching him from a hill overlooking the lake. The boy had stopped while walking his bike up the long slope, young eyes were always drawn to the backboard, and had noticed Mark’s unreal volley. A couple times, he came close to hollering a distraction and breaking Mark’s stride, but he was too impressed by the deftness of Mark’s returns. The boy decided Mark Gourde was better than anyone on the high school varsity team.
When he saw the ball go into the woods, the boy followed it. He saw it drop down, thirty feet beyond the court’s fence. Everything there was green, but the boy felt he knew where the ball had landed. A bad place to search, he knew, but he wanted to help the budding champion all the same.
After he chained his bike to a nearby tree, just as the board began its one-note song, he called to Mark, “I saw where it went!”
The boy dropped down the hill, bouncing off jutting boulders and dead branches.
“Hey!,” Mark said, alarmed, seeing a thief, “That’s my ball!”
The boy did not hear this, cutting through the brush and reaching the chain link fence.
“I saw where it went,” he repeated, pointing into the grossly lush green woods.
“Dickweed…,” Mark cried, standing on his bad leg and clutching his racket like a club, “That’s my goddamn ball!”
“Yeah, I’ll get it for you!,” the boy said at last, scrambling through the brush on all fours.
Mark hobbled to the fence, wrapped his fingers in its mesh and began to climb. Hand over hand, dragging his bad leg along, twenty feet into the air. From that height he could see the other boy squeezing through an old beaten fence, crawling into a neighboring yard. The boy seemed to know exactly where he was going.
“My ball!,” he called to the boy once again.
The boy did not look over his shoulder, instead answering with, “I know!”
The boy was fast. Mark knew he would have the ball soon.
Mark jumped off the top of the fence, landing in a mound of brush and hay and leaves. There was a squirrel carcass wrapped in cobwebs at the bottom of the pile. His hand brushed it and an initial jolt of disgust gave him a pretty fair and detailed picture of the thing. He leapt from the pile, looking back sickly at the pitted little creature pawing at nowhere.
Clods of dirt shook off the backboard, plopping in the dry grass. Dust of insect bones gusted Mark’s nose, ears and lips.
“Okay, okay,” Mark muttered and tore through the branches and briars. Almost immediately his leg wound was papered with twigs and pine needles and soil. He ingested two or three ear wigs. Finally he reached the remains of an old fence, hidden beneath the brush, and Mark tripped before remembering the terrain, scoured his elbows and forearms with splinters. Ignoring the little sting, he rushed ahead.
The crumbling gables of an old house peered through the lower tree canopy as Mark pushed through its wooden fence. It had been empty for years, but the sight of it made Mark feel like he was trespassing. He pictured homeless men camping just inside those walls, watching the kids at the beach. Choking their smelly chickens, every last one of them- what else do they do with their time, Mark thought.
“I got it,” the other boy called ahead. Mark continued to push through, seeing a clearing up ahead. He no longer could see where the boy had gone, but the clearing looked good to him. It would give him some mobility.
As he came closer to the bright opening, he noticed something out of place. There was a suburban van, a big gray one like a headless rhinoceros grazing in the tall grass. It shined, brand new. A feeling of discord struck Mark. A van should not be there, in that field, so early on a spring morning.
Mark edged into the grass, measuring his breaths. He did not want to see the van, and he did not want to be seen by the van. But he needed a vantage from the center of the field, so he continued at a crawl, walking on the balls of his feet, hands out in front of him and palms facing downward. He had read that this was how ninjas walked, using their cat stealth.
“Hey, I got it! Where are you?” the other boy cried.
As he walked further into the field, Mark found he was not able to see into the walls of forest. It was too dark. He was ready to call out for the boy but thought better with the van so close, instead keeping his eyes peeled.
He saw nothing though. It was like the other boy was not even there, as if he had baited him into the woods, and then stepped outside of the world, leaving Mark alone.
Mark’s gaze slung over his shoulder. The vehicle’s back end was open, its rear lights were blinking. Chk-chk. Chk-chk. He took a step towards it.
“Hi?,” he said before realizing what he saw. Somebody was curled up in the back of the van, like he was sleeping. He was wearing sweat pants and a t-shirt. Red sweat-pants. Black t-shirt. “Hello?”
Mark took another step, feet crackling on the field’s long dried flora. The van knew he was there. He might as well give himself up.
A flock of birds lifted out of the forest suddenly, a mix of them. Black birds, crows. Even a red canary sailed with them, a diamond fleck of blood in black pitch. Just as the birds rose, the backboard blasted:
Muscles froze in Mark. He was too focused on the person sleeping in the van to worry about the board though. There was something not right about somebody taking a nap in that poor fetal position. The backbone jutted too sharply underneath the t-shirt.
Something white, hard and sticky poked out between the collar of the sleeper’s t-shirt and his dark bushy hair. Mark almost knew that white thing, knew its name.
The sleeper shuddered.
“Hey. There you are,” the boy yelled. He was walking through the field towards Mark.
Behind him, a man was following. He was much older than they were, even in his thirties, but his eyes were young, maybe younger than Mark’s. The man was wearing jeans and a bright green windbreaker. He had half a smile.
The other boy was rolling the tennis ball between his palm and fingers.
“Are you that Andre Agassi I’ve just heard about?” the man asked, increasing his stride so that he stood behind the boy now.
“Wh-?” Mark said. Things were happening too quickly.
“You were great,” the boy said, proud. “I saw that volley.”
The boy stopped about ten feet from Mark. The man stood behind him, hands stuffed in the front of his windbreaker. Mark was just about at the bumper of the van now, and if he turned towards it, he would see the sleeper was trying to get up.
“You play at the tennis courts over there? By the lake?” the man asked, amused, his eyes holding Mark. “I used to play there all the time with a friend of mine. Day after day for two whole summers. We wanted to make the try-outs for the high school team.”
The boy handed Mark his tennis ball.
“My friend made it. But I was terrible” the man said, laughing. But not in his eyes, there was no laughter there, just a blanket of quiet mirth. They were so cow-like and babyish. “So I started going alone to the racquetball court… the one behind the regular courts… with that big board.”
“That’s where I was practicing.”
“I spent weeks on that mother. Pounding it,” the man’s smile was getting foggy, his upper lip was slow to catch up with his lower lip. “It was new back then. They laid down that soft asphalt, good on your feet, what do they call it? That foamy material? It’s got to be a mess now.”
Mark and the boy stood there, glued. Something in this man had gravity to it. He wanted to keep you, hold your attention, and not give you back.
“Anyhow, practice. That’s what makes you better. Constant practice. Work on your serve. That’s what the coaches want. A good server. That’s where the game is. Rocket serve, right?”
Both boys nodded, and the man mimed the ideal over-hand serve, pitching an invisible ball into the air and slicing it with an invisible racket. He whistled the ball’s trajectory.
Mark was still thinking about the white wet knob on the sleeper’s neck.
“Is that your van?” the other boy asked.
The man did not look at it, kept looking at the boys. If he did, he might have seen the sleeper’s body heaving, turning over, reaching for the bumper. “Yeah. I brought my buddy down to do some fishing.”
“Why here? There’s hardly anything in that pond.”
The man straightened himself.
“I know,” the man grinned. When is a grin not a grin, Mark would think later on. “I also wanted to show him where I grew up. It’s important, where you grow up.”
“Is that your friend in the car?”
The other boy had asked that, although Mark was thinking it. They all turned towards the van. The sleeper was rising, holding his hand to the back of his head. Pollen crusted the underside of his shirt.
“That’s him,” the man laughed, “Get up sleepy-head. That’s right. My buddies out here want to meet you.”
Then the man added, with a little bit of dry whimsy, “I grew up with these guys.”
It was an odd thing to say. The other boy gave bug-eyes to Mark.
The sleeper crashed down in the van. The whole vehicle bounced.
“Well… out like a light.”
The man’s hands moved inside his jacket.
“He’s gone the way of the do-do. La-dee-da-la land. You guys want to go fishing with me? Just for a couple of hours? Or maybe- uh- play some tennis on that backcourt?”
The other boy clicked his tongue, as if infinitely irritated with the man and his too young eyes, “But there’s no fish in that p-…”
That’s when the man’s hand whipped from his pouch, something like a hammer or a mallet swinging back through the air, meant to clobber both the boy and Mark. The boy was too quick for the swing, but, while feinting, walked straight into the corner of the van. He knocked himself to the ground.
Watching this, Mark felt the mallet catch and bash his shoulder. The earth was sharp with gravel and thorns; he somersaulted into it.
There, almost insensible, he saw the sleeper’s body vomited from the back of the van and spill to the ground. Its eyes were rolled back to whites, teeth shattered in smashed lips and nose. Bubbles of snot squirted out from the sleeper’s nose.
Mark raced towards the woods, at first on his knees and elbows, then shins and wrists. Careful of nails and broken bottles, he thought: even briar thorns could break skin, grab him, slow him down. Finally he was sprinting with his feet, hands groping for trees. He seemed to crash into the forest, thrashing through the leaves and vines. Threads of nerves burned in his shoulder, against the bone.
He was lucky to see the outline of the fallen fence, the one that had tripped him earlier. He cat-stepped on top of it, balancing himself. Terrified to either fall or slow down, he launched himself along its rickety boards.
Once he passed it, he heard a crash behind him. He turned, expecting to see the other boy. But it was the man, his child eyes looking hurt. The fence had snapped beneath him and he sat in it. If it had not broken, he would have brained Mark.
“Help me up, little guy,” the man said, but not a note of kindness in his voice.
Mark broke for the backboard, for its fence. He felt the air above sizzling with a sourceless heat. Despite this and his pulverized shoulder, he jumped onto the fence and climbed it, all his life held against his stiff tongue. His own death was in front of him, he could see it: at thirteen years old, he felt he had already lost. The sun was a haze of the diminishing future.
He jumped from the top of the fence into the court, left ankle snapping on the cratered asphalt.
The man was racing from the forest now, hammer in one hand and the other one clenched in a big iron ball of white hot knuckle and tensed skin. He would pummel Mark into a fleshy hill on the courts. His fingers bent like talons, he came to the fence.
Something shook, somewhere. The backboard shuddered.
A geyser of dirt exploded from underneath the man, a column of it launching him twenty feet into the sky, ribbons of transparent blue followed him from the fence. His body flopped like a strand of overcooked spaghetti over a tree branch, and the lightning whipped around him, scoring his skin with electric black burns. The man’s jeans caught fire. He did not kick or scream, just let it burn, melting his thick athletic legs underneath.
Mark did not hear the backboard hrmmmmmfmfming this time. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. He watched the man for a little while, hanging on that high branch, white stage smoke pouring off his body. He saw the other boy approach the fence, sensing the danger without seeing the downed line or the denim burning above him, then struggled up the hill, back to his bike. The boy might have called, “I’ll get help.” Mark did not know.
Broken glass and mouse droppings were Mark’s bed as he laid back, exhausted. He could really feel his shoulder, his cracked ankle and cut leg. He heard the sleeper groaning over by the van, back behind the woods, and felt bad for him. Such a squashed face. Nothing left of it, really. Just the hrmmmmfnfning from the sleeper’s smashed mouth. Sounded like the backboard, he thought. Despite his guilt, he wished the guy would just shut up.
The board, on the other hand, was quiet.
It would never hum again.