At first it was not a promising scene. The gym was in a squat building. The floor was a dispirited linoleum tile. Lined up on each wall were a few folding chairs with miscellaneous jackets and jerseys strewn about. As the door slammed shut everyone turned. Everyone included a motley crew of newbies and their limping coach.
The Y in Savannah is on the west side with a few live oaks lingering gracefully over the front entrance. Grace was left at the door because inside the hallway was dark and hollowed out like an old elementary school. A few sweaty bodies crossed into the cardio room which had once been the cafeteria or maybe the detention room. Down the way a door led bizarrely – up – to the second floor gym. Second floor gym? Can this notion only be explained simply by saying “hey, this is Georgia.”
Retrace your steps, I was told, back down from the second floor courts where only a lone player was shooting hoops, you need to jog to your left to get to the alternate site “out back, behind the pool”. That’s where you will come upon the linoleum laden scene already described. Bud, the coach, was the first to recover from seeing a stranger in their hidey-hole. Behind him the other players hesitated to play on, captured in a moment of curiosity. “you looking for pickelball?” shouted Burt. He hobbled forward with one knee clearly in bad shape. He extended his hand and a big smile. His big veined blue nose said there is much more to my story but instead turned his big grin toward his novices and, one by one, introduced each in turn.
Now, in sports, advanced players don’t want to play with those of lesser skills. Likewise intermediate players shun the novices. It’s the cruel law of the gym jungle hierarchy. As this reality was sinking in on all present, in walked a younger man; quiet but clearly athletic. He was called Chris but failed to chat with the others. He was soon followed by a fellow named Nate. It took only a few minutes to recognize Nate as a taciturn man of the first rank. For him a smile was apparently unthinkable and words were spoken as if they were in precious short supply. Attempts at humor soon proved to be ineffective against his bulwark of stoicism.
Next arrived Sid. This man was six feet tall, slim and athletic. He wore black leggings, grey shorts and a black sweatshirt. If the gym had been a poolhall Sid would be the guy with the small brimmed Trillby, a natty open collar paisley shirt and an unlit cigar in his mouth. Quickly it was apparent that Sid could return the ball with junk (spin) or juice (power) at will. In warm-ups he hit a return shot from between his legs. This guy was the pool shark of pickelball Savanah.
Eventually the world was set right. The lower skill players were relegated to the west court and the mid-level folks were on the eastside. Quietly Chris joined our foursome and it was announced that he was “deaf and dumb.” Inappropriate as this announcement was, it was equally unnecessary since athletes tend to be expressive in non-verbal ways. Sid, when partnered with Chris, effectively expressed his frustration with no words spoken. In fact the interplay between the (too?) confident play of African-American Sid and the power play of deaf Chris unfolded like a short-form Shakespearean comedy.
Ultimately the diminutive Donna rotated into the foursome. Short and slight she was surprising in smashing the ball back over the net from every corner of the court. Donna’s quick smile belied her competitive streak. A warm weather shopkeeper, her speech was peppered with every southern mannerism we northerners have learned to idolize. The truth is we often try, in our private moments, to imitate that charming style. Success is usually elusive or worse, embarrassing.
As play drew to a close at noon, master-of-ceremonies Burt reappeared. His voice had not a trace of southern charm. Was he an Army vet from the nearby base? Was he a sun seeking Yankee refugee plumber from Boston? His good nature was obvious. His history was more elusive. Another day of play is imperative if we hope to learn more.