Fred slammed the black phone down onto its cradle and swore. “Damn, damn, damn!!”
Fred looked up and glared at his three children. His face wore that dangerous mottled red and yellow pallor that often foretold that someone would get a beating. The kids dare not walk away, but none of them wanted to be the one to incur his wrath. They stared down at the floor, avoiding his eyes and each other’s.
“F###ing doctors! F###ing hospitals! They’re keeping your mother for more tests! Well?! Do you have anything to say for yourselves?! Dolts!”
At last, Junior chanced a response, “I’m sorry, Dad, will she be okay?”
Fred stared at Junior as though he had spinach caught between his ears. “Who the hell knows? But it means she won’t be here to take care of you! I’m no f###ing babysitter! What the hell does she think I’m going to do with you for another damned day? F###! I’ve got marks to make. Patsies to take. All right, look, Mary, go to your room and read till dinner time. Junior, take Donnie Boy to the club and have him pick up balls while you have a tennis lesson. I’ll pay for all day, so long as he keeps you two out of trouble. GO!! Get your stuff and go! GO!!”
The three children obediently went off. Mary liked to read but she wondered vaguely as she climbed the stairs what was wrong with her mom. Fred Junior was silent but inwardly grumbled because his younger brother always spoiled his fun. Donnie Boy was wondering how he could horn in on Junior’s lesson.
While the boys gathered their tennis clothes, shoes, and racquets, Fred Senior made a quick call to the club. “Listen, Joe, Junior’s coming down for a lesson. Donny’s tagging along. Clear your calendar. I want you to keep them out there all day. Kind of a family emergency. Mom’s in the hospital. I need you to keep those two out of trouble till dinner time. I’ve got a big deal coming up. So, I don’t want to see or hear from them till after 6 pm tonight. Got it? Okay, good. They’ll be there in about half an hour. What? What other commitment? I just told you! It’s an emergency! Cancel the lesson for Missy Fancy Panties. She can come another time. What? I don’t care! Jesus. You’re a smart man. Just make something up. Tell her your hemorrhoids are bothering you. Tell her your cousin from Florida just came to visit. Tell her you broke your arm. I don’t care. Just lie. It’s not rocket science!”
The boys arrived and soon enough went to court one where Joe had a large basket of balls. The sun shone through a hazy August sky. It was hot and humid and the three of them were all sweating even before the lesson began. “Okay, Fred, go to the service line and let’s warm up a little — like we need to warm up today. He chuckled at his own joke.
Donnie Boy said, “What about me? Where should I go?”
Joe, who was quite familiar with the whole family, and especially tiny-handed Donnie Boy, thought to himself that a visit in hell might do him good. But he had been promised a substantial tip from Fred Senior if he kept them occupied the whole day, so he bit his tongue and said, “You stand over there Donnie and just watch the ball and watch how I hit it for a while. Pick up the balls that go astray and put them in the basket. Keep it filled. Then, when your brother gets tired, we’ll see whether we can teach you something.”
“I already know how to play! I just want to get better! I want my name on a trophy! Today!”
Joe laughed in spite of himself. “Donnie, no-one gets a trophy the first day they play. You need to earn it.”
Donnie Boy thought to himself: Oh yeah? We’ll see about that. Aloud, he said, “I told you. I already know how to play. I watched it on TV one time. It’s really easy.”
Joe shook his head, glared a little more fiercely than he meant to at the scrawny awkward kid. He decided not to pursue that line of thought and instead concentrated on Junior. “Here you go. Yes. Nice.” Fred Junior proved to be half-way decent, with good form. “No, bend your knees on those low ones. Don’t bend over. Get your butt down.”
Donnie shouted, “If I don’t get to play, I’m going to tell Daddy you said the word ‘butt’!”
Donnie wondered whether it would rain later. He didn’t think so. Not till they got home. He didn’t want it to rain, so it probably wouldn’t rain. He practiced making it not rain. It didn’t always work, but sometimes it did. It’s because I’m a genius, Donnie Boy thought to himself. He became vaguely aware that play had stopped. Why?
Joe spoke loudly but did not yell. “See anything missing from our tennis game, Donnie Boy?”
Donnie Boy blinked. “Well, when I watched tennis on TV, there were lots of fans screaming. Nobody’s watching us play tennis. Nobody at all.”
Joe shook his head. “Donnie Boy. What do you need to play tennis?”
Donnie Boy brightened. “Rackets! My dad loves rackets!”
Joe sighed. “Right, but what else do you need?”
Donnie frowned. “A court?”
Joe continued, “Right. A court. And what else do you need to play tennis?”
Donnie stared at Joe. He glanced at his brother who seemed to mouth the word, ‘Paul’s’ but he didn’t know which ‘Paul’ his brother was talking about. He said, “Paul’s! You need Paul’s!”
“Paul’s? What are you talking about Donnie Boy? Who’s Paul?” Joe was visibly annoyed now despite his attempts not to let it show. “What were you supposed to be doing while you were watching your brother, Donnie Boy?”
Donnie stared at Joe. “Watching.” He glanced at his big brother again but Junior was just shaking his head. “Donnie Boy, you were supposed to be fetching the balls for us and putting them back in the basket!”
Donnie gritted his teeth. He hated the word “fetch.” That was for dogs and dark-skinned people, not for the likes of him. “Okay, okay. But when do I get a turn?”
“You’ll get a turn when I say you do, and that will happen much sooner if you help by picking up the stray balls and putting them back in the basket! Just like I asked you to.”
“Okay, Joe. I’ll get them.” Donnie Boy ran to one spot and picked up a ball and carried it back to the basket and put it in. Then, he went to gather another ball and put that in. Finally, when there were five balls in the basket, Joe asked Junior to go to the baseline and practice backhands. Fred had progressed a lot this summer, but the five balls were gone just as Donnie Boy put a sixth one in the basket.
Fred yelled to his younger brother. “Donnie Boy! For God’s sake, don’t just put the balls in one at a time. You should be able to hold five or six — even in your teeny hands. Take the basket with you so you can put them in quickly. Are you thinking?”
Oh, I’m thinking brother, he thought. Count on it. Aloud, Donnie said, “Yes, Fred. I’ll get them all. Thank you for your suggestion.” Don’t want him to be on guard here.
Donald put his mouth into the shape of a smile and said to Joe, “I’m going to watch from back here, Joe. I want to see how to hit from the back.” Donnie Boy found that he could only hold three in teeny hands, but he could jam a few more into his shorts.
Joe ignored Donnie Boy but shouted to Junior. “Recover! Hit and recover. That’s it! If you are way over there you need to move back quickly to cover the cross-court shot. There you go. Faster next time.”
Junior was hitting pretty well now and watching the ball intently. He was executing a pattern so obvious that even Donnie Boy could see it. And when the coach hit to Junior way out near the alley, Donnie put four balls in his teeny hands and slid all four onto Junior’s path just as he was sprinting back to just past the middle of the court.
Fred Junior stepped directly onto one of the stray balls and his right ankle rolled and he fell on his elbow and shoulder. “CRAP!” he screamed.
Joe sprinted directly to Junior, easily hurdling the net in the process. Crap indeed, thought Joe. Now I have to fill out a frigging report and maybe Fred Senior won’t give me that promised tip after all. Crap. Although, half the time, he doesn’t keep his promises anyway. He’ll just deny he ever made the promise. What proof do I have. Anyway, injuries are crap for the club.”
Joe helped Fred over to the stands and had him sit down. He could see that the ankle was already swelling. He got an ice pack and put it on Fred’s swollen ankle. He looked at Donnie Boy and wondered how someone could be so inept.
Still hoping for the promised tip, Joe kept his face neutral as he said, “Okay, Donnie Boy. Your turn. Show me your stroke.”
“What?! I’m not doing that in front of you! You pervert!” Donnie put his face into a look of horror and revulsion.
“What? What the — what are you talking about? Show me your tennis stroke, Donny.”
Donnie pretended to gain some insight. “Oh, okay. Like this!” As he said the word ‘this’ Donnie slapped the racquet through the air as hard as he could.
Joe sighed. “This is going to be a long afternoon”, he mumbled under his breath. “More slowly, Donnie. Ac-cele-rate through the shot. Never mind. Just don’t try to kill it.” Joe hit an easy shot over the net to where he thought Donnie’s racquet head might go. Donnie swung with all his might and hit the tennis ball onto an adjoining court.
“I win!” shouted Donnie Boy.
“Donnie,” explained Joe patiently, “it’s not a contest to see how far you can hit it. You have to make it land inside these white lines. That’s the court. It has to land in the court or it’s my point.”
Joe fed another easy ball to Donnie who swung as hard as he could and this time hit the ball onto a nearby fairway. “I WIN!” shouted Donnie.
“No, Donnie Boy. I told you. It has to land in the court. Inside these lines. Or on the line. But not over the fence.”
“My shot was IN!” shouted Donne Boy.
“It wasn’t even close! You have to think about where you want the ball to go, Donnie.”
“MY SHOT WAS IN!!” shouted Donnie.
“It was not in. We not even playing for points, Donnie. I’m just trying to get you to hit a better stroke.”
“It was too in! You just don’t like me! That’s why you said it was out. You don’t want me to win! You won’t let me win! You don’t like me!”
The pain in Fred’s ankle was still increasing despite the ice. “Donnie, the ball was way out! Surely you can see that. Anyway, it’s not a match! He’s a professional! You’re a beginner! We’re here to learn!”
“It was IN! insisted Donnie Boy. “You say it wasn’t in, Junior, because you don’t like me either!”
“Of course I like you, Donnie. You’re my brother.” Fred Junior tried to make this sound sincere, but he really couldn’t quite muster it. It sounded thin and hollow as though he were reading it off a teleprompter without understanding any of the words. “The ball is either in or out. It has nothing to do with whether we like you.”
“So people’s eyes never play tricks on them? People always see just perfectly, I suppose?”
Joe said, “Of course, when it’s close, sometimes people are mistaken. Your shots were not close. Not even close to close. They were way out, Donnie.”
“No, you don’t like me. Anyway, show me how to play tennis. That’s what Daddy’s paying you for.”
Joe sighed. He amazed himself by suddenly picturing himself sprinting over to Donnie and smashing that thick skull of his with Donny’s own racquet. He shook his head and dismissed the image. At long last, the worst hour of Joe’s teaching career was over and it was time for a short break and lunch. Joe helped Fred Junior hobble inside while Donnie got his bag from the locker room and then stood in front of the club trophy case; stared longingly at the display of cups, plates, and statues. At last, he walked over to Joe and said, “Hey, Joe, I think it would help motivate me better if I could see what one of those trophies really looks like up close. So close, I could grab it by the pedestal! Do you think I could see one?”
Joe frowned. It was definitely an unusual request, but hell, why not. If it would keep Donnie off his back for a moment. “Okay, sure.” He took out his keys and opened the trophy case and took out one of the large shiny trophies and handed it to Donnie, saying, “This is the Club Championship Trophy. Be careful, by the way.”
“Oh, I will, Joe. I will be very careful!” Donnie Boy made his face look sincere.
Soon, the three had ordered. “Joe and Fred Junior talked about some tennis people Donnie had never heard of. Suddenly he leapt to his feet! “Uh-oh! Can you guys watch my trophy for a second? I’ll be right back.” Without waiting, Donnie strode into the kitchen. Joe glanced after him, but turned back to the conversation. In a few moments, Donnie returned and sat. Joe and Fred Junior stared at him. “Oh, I had to change my order. I forgot I want a cheeseburger, not just a hamberder.”
They talked for a few moments when Donnie called out, “LOOK!” He leapt up, pointing toward the kitchen. Thick white smoke was coming out. The fire alarm shrieked at them mercilessly. The sprinklers soaked them. The quiet chatter of the dining room shattered into cacophony like a dropped stack of dishes. No-one noticed Donnie Boy slip the Trophy into his gym bag.
The fire damage to the Club was only a few thousand dollars. No-one in the kitchen had any idea how the fire had started. The Head Chef was, nonetheless handed a pink slip. Joe was reprimanded for Junior’s injury. He never received the promised tip. Indeed, Fred Senior had instead threatened to sue the instructor “for every f###ing penny he had” unless he agreed to give a summer’s worth of free lessons to both boys. He rumbled and grumbled before he crumbled.
A few weeks later, Donnie Boy came by to practice his putting and chipping on the practice green. When he checked in, he opened up a pocket in his golf bag and handed a large trophy to what’s his face — the freckled guy with red hair — who often checked people in. Luckily, he had a name tag: WALLACE. “Wally, could you please do me a favor and get this trophy back into the trophy case. Joe was showing it to me when the kitchen caught fire. Wanting to protect it, I shoved it into my gym bag. Well, of course, here it is now, safe and sound.”
“Oh, you were here when they had that fire! Wow! That was something.”
“Yes, Wally! It was scary. Nobody knows how it started, right?”
“No sir. Weird. The cook said someone had apparently spilled cooking oil all over one of the stovetops. No-one remembers doing it or seeing it. Anyway, I’ll make sure it gets back where it belongs.”
“Thank you so much, Wally.”
Neither Wallace nor the receptionist noticed that the name of last year’s club champion had been replaced. Donny Boy had scratched the original tag beyond recognition and then had taken it to a jeweler. Donny explained that he had been mad at his Dad and scratched his Dad’s name off of the trophy plaque. Donny clenched his nails into his fist until tears appeared. He explained that Dad would black and blue him if he found out. The jeweler swore it as a low price for the new engraving, but Donny Boy had to pay ten dollars of his own money that he had stolen from his sister’s purse. But it was worth it. Every time he walked through the club lobby, he glanced over at the Club Championship Trophy and it made him feel how special he was.
Months later, the actual champion, who had since moved to California, returned to play a match with an old buddy of his. He wanted to remind his buddy about his skill and on the way out to court six, pointed to the Trophy in the display case. “Oh, look. What do you know. There I am,” he drawled jokingly.
His friend glanced in. “Yeah, yeah. Well today…What the—?” He couldn’t believe his eyes. He pointed at the Trophy Case wordlessly.
The champion stepped slowly toward the glass case. He stopped only when his nose touched the glass. His mouth fell open. His name was gone. Donny Boy had instead had his own name engraved. “Who the hell is this?” He seemed to be addressing the question to the universe, but if he was, the universe didn’t answer.
At least not in so many words.
Other stories of the mythical and completely fictional child sociopath, Donny Boy.
Donnie takes a Blue Ribbon in Spelling