Illustrator: L.K. Sukany
I like bugs. I hate my dad's clothes 'cause he always wears brown. I like the tennis coach 'cause he's blond, wears a color that's not brown, and has a nice voice, soft, that tells funny stories. I like the tennis balls 'cause they're yellow, and when I hold two of them up to my eyes and yell, "I'm a bug!" everybody at tennis camp laughs. I like the tennis courts 'cause they're green, red, and white, but the truth is — I hate tennis. I'd rather sit under the big tree outside the pretty courts and watch the bugs take flying lessons from their Ma's and Pa's. I don't even think I should be playing tennis 'cause I got a hole in my heart.
The doctor said I could never play three sports: football, motorcycles, and skiing. I wish the doctor would have said no tennis, but he didn't, and here I am.
Ace V. Love, the tennis coach, starts camp by making us call out numbers real loud. I'm a number one. Shannon Carriage, my next-door neighbor, is a number two. Shannon tells Ace she doesn't want to be number two. So, we switch.
Ace always hits the ball before I'm ready. "Pal," he says, "you got to turn your body this way." "Pal," he shouts, "you got to turn your body that way." "Pal," he yells, "pay attention and move those feet."
"Alan Meeks," he says, "you run slower than water uphill."
Ace V. Love only calls me by my full name when he's disappointed in me. The rest of the time he calls me Meeks.
"Meeks," he says, "I hope you're ready. Here comes the smoker, the whizzer, the demon speedball." Then, Ace hits the ball before I'm ready. "Swing, Meeks!" he shouts. "And a miss! Strike one! That's okay, you have two more chances. Ready position? Here comes the supersonic-underhanded sinker. Are you ready? Swing, Meeks! he yells. "Striiiiike two! You can do this, Alan. I want you to concentrate. Ready position? Okay, here comes the skinny-fat ball guaranteed to make mountains outta' mole hills and boys into men. Swing!" I close my eyes and hit the ball hard. My hand goes wobbly. "And you can kiss it goodbye!" Ace yells into the handle of his racket. "The crowd goes wild," Ace makes all these hissing sounds and claps the strings of his racket against his hand. "A grand slam for Alan 'The Squeak' Meeks. Now, Meeks, you know what this powerful display of brute force means?"
"What?" I say.
"It's time for you to tie your laces and run the paces around the bases."
I drop my racket and run after the ball. I can't find it right away. Bugs in the tall weeds are much more interesting. "Where is it, Pal?" Ace asks when I come back to the fence.
"The ball, Meeks. Put away your butterflies and welcome to tennis camp!"
Today, I tried to capture a dead dragonfly that had fallen into the sewer grate outside the tennis courts. Dragonflies are long ants with see-thru wings like miracle windows. As soon as I saw the dragonfly, I knew I had to have it for my collection.
My fingers got stuck in the grate. I didn't want to tell anyone, especially Ace. Everyone on the courts stopped playing when I yelled, and then there was a long nothing when Ace tried to pull my fingers out of the grate, but they just wouldn't budge. "This is worse than wearing a wedding ring, huh, Meeks?" Ace said.
Ace had to call to the two big construction workers who stood tall on the buildings across the street and wear ugly-yellow to pick up the grate with my fingers still holding the dragonfly.
They carried me away to the Y.M.C.A. building on the hill. Ace held me in his arms while the two men held the grate in their hands. They sat me down on a long blue couch. One of the men held the grate while the other sat beside me. They said things like, "I can't hear myself think!" and "Could you yell any louder?"
Finally, Ace stopped talking into the phone, put money into a big glass machine, and bought me a Mr. Good candy bar. "Know why they call it Mr. Good, Meeks?"
"It won't be long now," Ace said when the Janitor came with the saw.
The saw made gritty sounds against the grate. I kept thinking the saw was going to cut through the grate and my fingers and then through the dragonfly. The yellow-men told me if I didn't stop yelling, they were going to pull out my tongue and wrap it around my head.
The dragonfly's wide see-thru wings fell onto the floor and turned to dust. The Janitor holding the coping saw stepped on them with his tired work boots when he left. So did the yellow-men who each held half a grate. I almost cried out, but didn't want the yellow-men to start yelling again. I just put another piece of Mr. Good in my mouth, and I held onto the long body of the dragonfly while Heather, the YMCA assistant, told me she was calling home to tell my parents that I needed to get a tetanus shot.
I think my dad hates the tennis coach. I know it's my fault he hates him. When he got home from work last night, I lied about my fingers and how they got hurt. I told Dad I fell on the top of a tennis can lid that was metal and rusty and lying on the tennis courts. On our way to the hospital to get a tetanus shot, Dad asked how old Ace V. Love was and if he paid attention to us.
Today, Ace was late to Tennis Camp. He told us he got a flat tire before practice. He said he accidentally hit the curb outside the Y.M.C.A. building 'cause he was watching Heather Lockjaw walk and not what he was doing. "But, it was worth it, Pal!" he said and hit a tennis ball at me before I was ready, and I swung too hard and hit it over the fence again.
When I ran outside after it, I noticed a big board over the grate. Ace told me not to go near it. He said he didn't want me falling into the sewer. "Raccoons live down there," he said, and if I didn't like tetanus shots, I would hate rabies shots 'cause the needles are as long as his arm.
At lunch, while we all sat under the big tree, I shook up my tennis ball container filled with grape Kool-Aid mixed with one tablespoon of sugar and pool water.
"Yum! It tastes just like soda pop."
Ace said it's not safe to drink pool water, no matter how good it tastes. He said it could make me puke. He said if I fell down and foamed at the mouth, he would have to take me to the hospital to get my stomach pumped. "Have you ever had your stomach pumped, Meeks?"
"No!" I said, "but I swallowed a yellow jacket once."
"Then your stomach must have a pretty good lining."
He's not very smart, the tennis coach. Then, he told us that we should always be sure to watch where we are going and never-ever to drive under the influence of pool water. "Oooops," he said, "I shouldn't have told you that. Now, you're all going to go home and drive your tricycles under the influence of pool water, and you're only eight years old. I feel miserable."
Shannon said, "We don't ride tricycles anymore, Ace."
"I still feel miserable," he said and pointed to his car. "That tire is going to cost me big bucks."
Today, I decided to like Shannon Carriage. She's a girl, but I decided to like her anyway. I chased her around the red areas of the tennis courts and threw pollen at her. She screamed "Jerk!" and hit me in the face with the ball.
Because it was hot, Ace let us play Water Tennis. We were supposed to yell, "You're the ball," and squirt water from our water-sippers at each other. I tried to squirt Shannon, but I missed every time. Then, for fun, I stuck the plastic straw from my water-sipper into my heart-scar and yelled "I've been strawed through the heart." Everyone at tennis camp laughed, except for Ace. He just took my water sipper away.
At lunch, I gave Ace half of my Fluffer-Nutter-peanut butter and banana sandwich. Ace just stared at it and then opened it up to see what was inside. I sat down next to him under the big tree and told him that the female bug is the one who bites and the male bug is the one who stays at home to protect the eggs.
"Male bugs have it good. Don't ya' think, Meeks?" he whispered and took a bite of his Fluffer-Nutter.
I told him that after the female bug bites you, she carries your skin home to feed her babies. He asked me if I still liked Shannon after what I just said about female bugs. "Yep," I said, "Women are pretty aggressive,"
"Yep," he said, "Women can be pretty complex."
"And I've discovered they don't like water."
This is the last day of tennis camp. Ace says we will have a pizza party after the tournament. Yum. I like pizza.
In the morning, Dad comes down to the tennis courts in his brown suit to watch me play in the first round. Dad stands tall with his fingers in the fence while Shannon serves the ball over and over again and again. "40 Love," Shannon yells real loud and hits the ball extra hard.
"Out," Dad yells.
"It's your call, Pal," Ace says real nice to me.
"It was in. Good game, Shannon," I say, lock eyes with Dad, and hit one final ball over the fence on purpose and into the weeds.
Dad turns his back, and watches the ball fly high over his head. I think he's going to run after it so we can find bugs together in the tall weeds, but he just waves goodbye and slowly walks away to his car. At the net, I shake hands with Shannon, who says, "Good game, Meeks. Too bad your Dad didn't stay for Pizza," and rubs her fists into her eyes and yells, "I'm a ladybug."
Right before lunch, Ace picks me up on his back. I hang around his neck. "We are on a jungle safari, Meeks," he says. "Get the big nets ready for the Zebra swallowtail." "Look," I say, "it's rare and tasty Pizza Mantis!" The pizza delivery man doesn't even smile, he just stands in front of Ace holding the boxes.
Today, lunch is the best ever. Ace sits under the big tree outside the tennis courts with me while the others play in the tournament. We count the bugs in the sky. I call them out by name real fast: "Black-winged damselfly, two-striped grasshopper, June bug, and buffalo treehopper."
Ace says, "Flying bug number 1, jumping bug number 2, squatting bug number 3, big ugly bug number 4."
Ace points to the big scar on my chest where they tried to fix the hole in my heart and asks me if it hurts.
"It did, but it doesn't," I say.
"Mine too, Meeks." He stares at his car and I stare at the board over the sewer grate.
I don't think I will ever forget tennis camp. I tell Ace that I love him like a bug and put the tennis balls up to my eyes for the last time. "Finish your pizza, Meeks," he says and hands me a Mr. Good out of his big bag