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REQUIEM FOR A HANDBALL PLAYER

 by Pedro Antonio Garcia

          I knew that his name was Mike, and he told me his last name once, but I can’t remember it now.  I do remember that I spoke with him last week on the bench at Bailey Park, and that the day was a beautiful one, with a clean sky and a bright sun that warmed our foreheads and made us happy.   He told me he lived alone, in Riverdale, not far from the Courts.  His wife passed away earlier this year, after a long stay in a nursing home.  He told me he was 83, and that he drank martini lunches when he worked as an executive in the garment district years ago.  Now, he mixed himself a drink at home after a day at the Courts. He would usually have dinner with friends, arriving home afterwards to sleep and wake the next morning for the daily trek to Bailey Park.   Before this day, I had never had an extensive, exploratory conversation with him, the kind you would have with an old friend while sharing a beer.    But, we sat for an hour, joking, talking and listening.  There were liver spots on him, and he had expensive and archaic dental work, gold fillings and slanted bridges.  He spoke with a deep, resonant and garrulous voice,  and his laugh was hearty and gentle.  I told him I had two Monte Cristo Cigars I would share with him. We smiled, and we were happy.  

        He always brought a blue folding chair with him, the same kind the other older players brought with them, which he would place under a large and resilient oak tree, a tree impervious to the vitriolic demands of the players to perish as a result of the mottled shadow it cast on the “A” court.    From his vantage point, he bantered with the older players who sat with him.    He engaged in brief conversations with the younger ones who waited listlessly on the bench for their turn to play.    He would salute Armando with “How are you,  Champ”,   never forgetting to remind Armando that he won the “C” championship.  Armando would jibe playfully, “Mike, you’re always calling me Champ.”  And Mike would respond that Armando was the Champ. And this made Armando happy, for no reason other than that a handball player cared.   Sometimes Mike fell asleep on his chair, and he would awaken to a vision of handball players and the smack of a ball on a leather glove, the bang of the ball on the concrete wall, and he was always safe, secure, and at peace, comfortable in his place, surrounded by handball friends, basking in a clean day and a golden sun.     

              He passed away one week later,  on an identically brilliant and beautiful day.  A ball had rolled to his chair,  one which he would normally kick back to the players, as his arthritis prevented him from sudden bending and making quick and instinctive movements, the same ones which he needed for handball.  When Aaron noticed him asleep, he spoke to him, then shook him.  I glanced over from my seat on the bench, and initially he appeared to be asleep.   Serenity settled in his face, the sun radiating on his cheeks, his skin slightly reddening.   Aaron began shaking him, and Mike responded by slumping over.     We picked him up off his chair and laid him on the ground under the shadow of the large oak.  Abe the Fireman began mouth to mouth resuscitation, while I cradled my cellular phone between my right cheek and shoulder,  shouting directions to a 911 operator and obeying the instructions of Abe the Fireman by pressing down hard on Mike’s chest cavity.  There were exhortations of “Mike!”, “C’mon Mike!”, “Wake up Mike!”   I pressed down harder and cracked his sternum, above where he had major heart surgery months ago, the scar clearly visible from his navel to his neck.  A slight smile crept on his face.   As Abe the Fireman blew air into him, Mike’s stomach distended.   His lips fluttered with departing air each time I pushed his chest.   Immediately afterwards,  EMS arrived.    His short sleeved dress shirt was cut with scissors right down the middle.    Electrodes were pasted in squares to both sides of his chest.  A technician inserted a catheter down his mouth attached to a plastic cloudy ball which he squeezed to give direct oxygen to the lung.     When there was no response, Mike was shocked upon the technician’s order, once, twice, three times, all to no avail.  When nothing more could be done,  Mike was quickly removed to the Columbia hospital annex.

       I didn’t attend the funeral, and I still do not know why.   I know that the coffin was large, for Mike was a large man.   He stood six-two now, so he must have been strapping and powerful when he was younger.  But there are those sketchy details of his personal life that I am only now glimpsing.   I had never seen Mike play handball.  There was talk that he played when he was younger, but none of the handball players ever saw him play, not even the old timers.  Pete the Cop told me Mike first came eight years ago.  I, like others, assumed he was here for as long as Bailey Park existed.  I have been coming to Bailey for 28 years, and I believed I had always seen him,  that Mike was here all that time.   But no one ever saw him on the court, playing the game.  We did see him though, day after day, on ice cold days where you had to dress in parkas and shovel snow off the court, on days where the rain blurred your vision and slapped against the concrete as hard as the handball, and also on the sunny days that made you believe in the beauty and magic of life.  

 Mike was always there, omnipresent, watching the games, enjoying the camaraderie, drinking in the passion for handball.   He was as much a part of Bailey Park as the courts, the large oak, and the fresh scent of the Stella Dora Bakery that wafted across the Deegan and settled onto the Park.  In my own selfishness, I wish that he were still here, so that I would not have to bear his loss.  I look at the two cigars in my drawer and I feel empty and sad.  Oh what a fool I must be to miss an old man who never stepped on the court.   But it is now I feel the hypocrisy of my attempts to resuscitate him.  I think of how serene his face appeared while we frantically tried to revive him, the slight smile, and I know now that our actions were antithetical to his wishes.  I know now that  I am ashamed that I stopped pushing on his chest, that I doubted that Mike wanted me to do this, but I believed that Mike was where he wanted to be, sitting in his chair, on the handball courts, surrounded by his constant companions, enjoying a glorious day with what truly made him happy.  And above all else, I know now,  as much as any one of us, that Mike was a handball player.

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