The old tennis player loved our little park with its court and me, Himalaya, a crumbling concrete retaining wall that keeps the California hillside from sliding catastrophically. I am the namesake of that ancient mountain range between the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan Plateau. Early on most weekdays, when his canvas-shod footsteps carried the morning dew onto the court, it was just the two of us: me with my fading, horizontal, waist-high white line; him with his wooden racquet, balding tennis balls, and cheap, worn sneakers. Swing, pop, bounce. Swing, pop, bounce.
When he was younger, he pretended to be Amritraj, Borg, and Connors. His personal A-B-C of tennis. In recent years, despite his shoulder’s calcified tendonitis, he transformed into Roger, Rafa, and Novak. Hours on end, he winced through the pain and hit the ball toward me. I was always here for him, steadfastly supporting him, encouraging him when his rotator cuff insisted that his right arm was only good from the elbow down.
While he enjoyed playing with his son early on Saturday mornings before the more experienced men and women woke up, he had a special place in his heart for me. Of course, he loved his son even more, but I was here for him every day of the week, whatever time of day that was convenient for him. I didn’t judge him. I never tired of him. I refused to curse him if he hit an errant ball into the neighboring court or over me onto the rolling golden grass in the foothills.
He taught his son the meaning of tennis’ love-all.
I taught him to love all that surrounded us: oak trees and poppy flowers, tweeting birds and stinging insects, setting sun and rising moon, mule deer and mountain lions, and even the occasional raccoons and skunks.
As years passed, some players with their titanium racquets and matching titanium sunglasses smirked at his out-of-date Wilson with its broken strings. But I appreciated his loyalty to his equipment, and to me. Given that I was available 24×7, I was here for him whether he came early or late. I was here for him when he came with his son. And I was here for him when he came on his own, after the landscape changed and his son grew to be a man.
Though I’m still here, the park and its court have been replaced by a parking lot, an office building, and a coffeehouse that sells its black liquid with a sprig of mint on top. I wonder what Joni Mitchell—the Canadian-American singer-songwriter from the tennis player’s 1970s childhood—would make of the makeover. Pave over paradise and put up a Java shop?
Now I absorb his loneliness and teach him to love being alone. In exchange, he shares his particular worldview. One day, when I was contemplating my eternal existence, he asked me, “Do concrete’s loose stones ever return to the mountains from which they are quarried?” I responded that I will remain here until his son brings his own child and shows her his father’s workmanlike ground stroke.
Years from now, if he is still around to teach his granddaughter what “love-all” truly means, I’ll ask him a question in return: “Does your grandchild trill the folk songs about mountains that rise from the collision of continents?”
Collision Of Continents
The old tennis player might smile a tired memory and say, “When the hills around us burn, the sky turns an eerie orange. My granddaughter cries: she cannot go outside; she struggles to breathe; she chases a lullaby to fall asleep. Together, she and I sing John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High: “It’s raining fire in the sky.”
I will remember that Joni once sang, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Then I will think of the highest peak of Himalaya, that rare air that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary breathed while summiting Mt. Everest.
I will shed a few tears for the melting glaciers. Yes, even stones can cry.