SLAMMIN’ — A Novel

Chapter One

One hundred and sixty-three. That usually described how old Wally felt, but today that number had a new, ominous, and revolutionary meaning.

Some Challenger player, tooling at some Challenger get-lost-until-you-ranking-point-up tournament in Eritrea or Lansing or somewhere had just clocked a hundred and sixty-three mile per hour serve. And it went in! Many of the tour pros’ nannies’ SUV’s didn’t go that fast. But there it was. A new record. A new notch. A new day. What was happening to the sport?

The fastest serve recorded to date was 156. It didn’t go in. But this 163-er did. Until today, 150 had been the new 140, which had been the new 130. Many of his students would be happy with 80. But this was 80 times an even integer. Plus. Where would it end? Would it end? Tall, strong athletes were playing tennis now and yearly tour winnings equaled three to four NBA games. There was no top speed in sight. Unless general relativity put on the brakes at some point.

As Wally edged up to the security gate, he wondered how fast he could serve. 90? 100? 101? Could his car go that fast? Even with 106 Octane? On his left and right, at similar driveways, in similar cars, were guys also about 162 or 163, starting their days. Wally waved to his friend and teaching pro bro, Brett, pulling into the driveway on the right. Wally’s passenger, Rod Laver the Dog, raised his left paw and waved too.

Like the only two-time, calendar year Grand Slam winner, Rod Laver, the Australian Cattle Dog, wore a bandana around his neck and was left-handed. And friendly. Wally was pretty sure he waved. He was congenial, and smart. He probably did wave.

God, life was great. A job on court, a strong cup of filter coffee ground from fresh, whole, in-season beans in a burr grinder, and his dog. Why couldn’t the rest of the word just chill to this same reality? This day was like the planetary alignment in the final set piece in that weird cave in Tomb Raider. That, or the coffee was a valance or two above majestic. Wally thought about it all for a moment. The first Tomb Raider was a good film.

Gate code pushed. Nothing. Brett’s security gate opened effortlessly and his 1970 Cobalt Blue Pontiac GTO started down the twenty million dollar driveway on Wally’s right. Wally’s Shelby GT 500, bought in 1981 for $2,500.00, stayed right where it was. Rod whined softly. Wally pushed the call button. How fast could he serve, he wondered. And why did Angelina Jolie make The Tourist, anyway?

An eager, pulsating coo from the speaker, “Hello?”

It was Ashley. What was a high school junior doing home on a Friday morning?

Wally contorted his neck and stretched to speak into the gate intercom.

“Hi, Ashley, it’s Wally.”

“I know.”

“I think Betty changed the gate code again,” he said.

“Grandmas. Can’t live with them. Can’t humanely institutionalize them.”

“Words to love by,” observed Wally.

“Come on in. No one’s home but me.”

“I know.”

“Now, it’ll be just me and you.”

“Ashley?”

She cooed again. “Yes?”

“Can you change the gate code back?” he asked.

Ashley, now sounding like Angelina Jolie, “It’ll cost ya.”

Wally, now sounding like Jon Voight. “That’s okay.”

“You never accept my carnally overtures,” she said, sounding hurt.

“Well, for on thing, you’re my daughter’s best friend,” he said.

“I could unfriend her.”

“And I’m as old as your father.”

“I was abused by my father,” she said.

Wally looked surprised.

“Too much space,” she explained. “You know, freedom corrupts and absolute freedom corrupts resolutely. Have you seen American Beauty?”

“Ashley?”

“I’m opening the gate.”

The burly gates parted and Wally started down the long driveway to the estate’s second parcel, wondering if Ashley had really seen American Beauty. Kevin Spacey was good, but that movie gave him the skeevies. He made another in the long line of notes to himself to be careful here.

Welcome to Atherton. Where teaching pros worked on stunning, improbable estates in a rare, hidden economy. Every house was grand and impressive. Every teenager knew a lot and used what they knew. And Ashley Margincall knew more than most. Rod was straining to de-car, but it was a two-minute driveway. To stand out in Atherton, you had to have a second lot with a tennis court, a pool, a putting green, and maybe a sculpture garden. Or, sit out in your own yard once in a while. Ashley’s parents, Silas and Penny Margincall, had the court, the pool, the putting green, and a few Ginnevers. They never sat in the yard.

Her dad, Silas Margincall was short. But he was long on money by being short. He shorted dotcom in 1998, housing, retail, and Iceland in 2008 and these days was “old, smart money”, but still short. He was currently in Europe, buying back the Iceland condos for the next boom and shorting Andalusian banks. He and Penny were rarely home and when they were, not at the same time. But they could have been. Their second living room alone could hold fifty of their closest portfolio managers and their egos. But except for the mysterious grandmother, Betty, and their 17 year-old daughter, Ashley, the only true fulltime inhabitants were the gardeners, maids, cooks, and handymen. Consequently, the Margincalls economic spigot was always open.

Ashley had gotten very good at her part in the economic plumbing. With her folks perennially en vacance, she kept everything flowing. So, Wally needed to be vigilant and respectful. Circumspect. Stern, but not scolding. After all, Ashley was not only his tennis student, she was also his landlord. Like many of his buddies from college tennis or the tour, Wally Woodrow Wilson was a squatting tennis professional, making a living teaching millionaires and billionaires at somebody else’s house. But that happens in Atherton. So, it turns out, do others things.

Wally and Rod Laver the Dog got out of the Stang, and while Rod went off to see a man about a cat, Wally set up the court supplies for a day of teaching. Tennis balls in the ball mower. Racquet. Sunglasses. Water. And towels. He was ready. Thankfully, Ashley was nowhere to be seen. At eight a.m., his first student would arrive and his day would begin.