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Strings attached

If I do say so myself, my son and I are good friends. Pals even, the way dads and kids are supposed to be. We go to ball games together, drink beer together, even double date. I loan him money and he spends it. It's a nice relationship, with just one hitch—racquetball. Now that's a game I started playing about the time he was born 22 years ago. I played it long before it became a national craze, the newest "fastest growing sport." I played it when no one knew what the hell it was. I was at my peak in the game at a time when no one appreciated what it was I was at a peak in—a true unsung hero. I am at the stage now, regrettably, where I might charitably be called a "canny court tactician," that sort of thing.

My son took up the game when he entered college some four years ago. He couldn't beat me. He was and is faster, quicker, stronger and has far greater stamina. But he couldn't beat me. He'd finish first runner-up and such in school tournaments. But he couldn't beat the old man.

In time racquetball created something of a crack in our smooth friendship. I'd even throw a game now and then just to patch things up, but he'd see what I was doing and get even angrier. So I'd just go out and beat him. It drove him, as it were, up the wall. The shrinks tell us that we must at some point symbolically slay our fathers in order to achieve our own manhood. My son had the tool to slay me—a sawed-off racquet—but, try as he might, he couldn't bring off the prescribed patricide.

I lived on, pot-bellied and bandy-legged, sweat pouring in Niagaras from my ancient brow, eternally swatting kill shots, forever breaking service. I feared that because of me my son might even give up racquetball, marvelous sport that it is. I remembered that I myself had given up golf years before, for the stated reason that I hated the stupid game. But could my real reason have been that my own father was much better at it than I? Anyway, racquetball had led the two of us, my son and I, to orgies of soul-searching and self-analysis. Oedipus may have had his problems, but he never had to handle his father's cross-court serve.

By this past summer, it had gotten to the point where we were reluctant to play each other. One or the other of us would always be suffering from some crippling injury that would make a game unthinkable. (Actually, as my regular opponents will tell you, I have never played a game in good health. It is part of my warmup procedure to recite a litany of suffering that would have made Job himself sound like James Fixx.)

Still, when I visited my son at his university in September, shortly before his 22nd birthday, I suggested a game. He had a bad foot. My knee was acting up again. We both had bad colds. But we played. I won the first game, as usual, by a score of 21-12. My son cursed and banged his racquet against the wall, as usual. But we agreed to play another game. This time I observed that a certain eerie calm had come over him. His mouth was set, his eyes were bright. He said nothing bleepable. The kid was determined, all right. But so was I. To my own surprise, I welcomed his challenge. My honor was at stake. I would hurl the upstart back once more. Long live the Father!

I took my customary commanding lead, dazzling the youngster with clever passing shots, confounding him with serves that clung to the side walls like drapery. But this time, he was in control of his emotions. He kept coming on. A15-6 lead soon shrank to 15-12. I scored two more points, but he was diving for shots now, covering the whole court with his lanky body. I screwed up an easy kill. He outmaneuvered me with a lob over my head. He got in a lucky corner shot off a diving return. It was 17-15 and I was worried. I was also exhausted and dying for a couple of cold ones. But gutsy trouper that I am, I pressed on and scored what past experience with my son had taught me was the clincher.

I can scarcely explain what happened next. The damn kid scored six points in a row, making shots Marty Hogan couldn't make. The 21st and winning point was truly spectacular. I had hit the ball unreturnaly low off his serve. He dived for it and dinked it even lower. I gasped in disbelief, my sagging body as wet now as Tracy Caulkins'. The racquet fell from my hand in surrender.

Peter—for that is the boy's name, although he insists upon calling himself Pete, for Pete's sake—got to his feet and smiled for the first time in the game.

"Gotcha," he said.

A previously insurmountable barrier had been cleared. I said nothing. Then we both fell to the floor, pooped and giggling. Friends again. Friends still.

"Dad," he said, "lemme buy you a beer." And he did. So what if it was with my money.