It was the first night of eight days of tennis lessons. We had scheduled ourselves to play in our first ever tournament and were trying to get out every chance possible, despite June’s usual amount of rain. A parks and rec class could only help.
My husband wanted to warm up, so we arrived a half hour early. The high school was old, and the parking lot was vast, with cracks in the concrete that weeds and grasses grew in. Even the courts had this. The young teacher was pulling back the tabs on new cans of balls, setting them free into the practice baskets. An elongated, low-slung black dog roamed the lot. You noticed strays now, with so much leashing in the laws.
We hit a few balls back and forth – mostly forth and off against the fence or into the net. We were not warmed up. We’d eaten too much dinner after work, and too fast. I picked up a ball on the side line at the fence. When I stood, a lady was near, asking me a question.
“What?” I said. I was busy thinking about tennis and she hadn’t come right up to the fence anyway.
“Did you drive here, or walk?” she said.
A cynic’s mind rushed in to say “who wants to know?” But instead I told her we drove. It seemed so obvious, just our car and the teacher’s in the upper lot.
She looked about seventy, overweight in odd places but not obese. But mostly what I saw was the scabs on that piece of skin under the nose, and her chin. Scabs in odd places. “Somehow I locked my keys in my car. I didn’t think you could do that anymore. I live about seven minutes away. I need a ride.”
My selfish knee-jerk reaction was wishing her to disappear. I was here to play tennis. I was thinking of the word nuisance. But she needed a ride. Then I thought of Jim, who’d been insistent on coming early, adamant about practice, and not keen on strangers. I turned to him. “She needs a ride.” As he neared the fence, she repeated what happened. She wasn’t overly ingratiating, but I guess we weren’t either.
“Can you wait an hour?” he said. “We have a lesson.”
She nodded and said sure. You could tell she’d wait how ever long it took, she needed a ride.
We still had twenty minutes till class started. “I’ll take her,” I said. I put my racquet away and grabbed my jacket. “You can stay here,” I said to Jim. Then I realized he wouldn’t have anyone to practice with. As I walked to the car, he trailed me. Then I remembered I didn’t bring my license. I could see how this was going to go over; no practice, now he had to drive her, because I’d committed us.
We got in the car and she got in the back, telling us some vague directions as she did, not closing the door and the stray dog had come over to make friends with her and wanted in. I reached back as if to swat the dog out of the way. “No,” I said to it.
She shut the door and the dog jumped around timidly outside the car as we started to pull out. “It’s not your dog, is it?” I said.
“Well, yes,” she said. “I suppose she might try to follow the car.”
“Let her in,” Jim said.
We pulled out and the woman mumbled instructions for turning. Then she said, “I’m Nancy Gassner, I guess I should have said that in the first place. And this is Maggie.” We’re always so good about introductions, why hadn’t we been this time?
We said our names – first only – and listened to more directions. Her voice was modulated and somewhat sad. Sad that a newish car – which we never really saw – would let her down and swallow her keys. And maybe sad about something else, like where she got the scabs.
Jim and I were sitting stiffly, not like we usually sit in our own, familiar car. I thought about her having a gun tucked under her shirt, about a scam worked out with a boyfriend to get us to the house, about all the paranoid things that have nothing to do with helping a human who needs a hand. Maggie sat sweetly beside her owner. Nancy asked about our tennis lesson in her hesitant way. But we’d done nothing to make her feel welcome. Our personalities had left us, but not for good reason.
When we got to her street, she told us we could drop her off mid-block and they would walk the rest of the way. So we did. We hardly glanced at her or acknowledged her thank you, which was not profuse. Is that what we wanted, her to be warm and friendly and talk of grandchildren and elaborate on our good deed?
On the ride back to the school, we told each other we’d been good Samaritans, but it didn’t feel that true. We pondered why she didn’t want us to take her the last stretch to her house, if it was purely to save us those few seconds of time, or because there was someone angry at home, or the home was unsightly. We’d done nothing to connect with her.
Back at the courts, a lone man was using the school wall for a backboard while he waited for class to start. We still had ten minutes to practice.
The class was hard, in a good way, and we lost our thoughts over to serves and baselines. We bonded with the strangers in the class, laughed, and noted each other’s good shots out loud. Dark clouds had gathered by the time class ended, but we had escaped any rain. We gulped our brought water as we walked back to the car and said “see you tomorrow” to our new friends. We threw our equipment and unnecessary jackets into the trunk with abandon.
On the hood of our car was a single lily. White. The flower was near perfect, and set diagonally across the left side of the hood. The stem was unmarred, sturdy and green. Sturdy, that’s how I’d describe Nancy. The flower was a haunting symbol, and if she was in trouble, if those scabs were something we should’ve asked about, I’d never forgive myself.