submit submit submit - drawing by barbara klein
PING-PONG CENTRAL
BY JAMIE ALLEN
*
Me and Richie play ping-pong. Every day. At work. Several hours. Boss has no clue. Or maybe he does. But we donít care.

Iím gonna get you. Sucka! 

Thatís what Richie IMs me shortly after he arrives each day.

Dream on. Sucka! 

Thatís my IM back.

Ready? 

He says this after weíve answered all our email and the coast is clear.

Ready.

He walks out first, Harvard Tournament Line rubber ping-pong paddle tucked in the back of his pants, his guayabera covering it, hiding it from the Boss. Heís got a way of walking that makes him look like heís thinking of some place else, like heís too good for the here and now. 

I make sure heís out, then I reach in my drawer, grab my Harvard Tournament Line rubber ping-pong paddle and a Stiga ball, orange and smooth, like an egg that I will crack on Richieís forehead. 

Sucka! 

We get to the company gym, located downstairs and out of sight. We wave at the pretty girl at the reception desk. She knows us. She doesnít bother us by asking for IDs. We trip down the stairs to Ping-Pong Central, a table situated inside a racketball court. We push and shove each other inside. The place echoes with our activity. 

Richie takes out his wallet, his keys. I take out my wallet, my Palm. We toss them on the ground, like ping-pong gauntlets. 

We stand on opposite sides of the table. 

You ready, Sucka? 

I serve. 

Weíre two guys. Both wiry. Both left-handed. Lots of topspin. Lots of Body English. Lots of power-grunts! Lots of shrieks! 

We look like a wiry, left-handed, crazed Forrest Gump playing ping-pong against a mirror: Every shot already answered before it is hit, every spin already countered before it is spun. A point ends only by the smallest fraction of an error; a winner wins only by the smallest fraction of a paddle.

Weíre disappointed when the other one screws up, because we want to keep the rally alive more than we want to win the point. Deep down. Thatís what we want.

Weíve been doing this for months now. Ever since the layoffs. Layoffs are not something you want to go through. They donít tell you. They donít treat you like a human. You just walk in one day and your friend is crying in her cubicle, and another friend, whose wife just had a kid, is making several trips to the bathroom. One by one, you all get called into the Bossís office, closed doors, HR person sitting by Bossís side. And he fucking reads from a piece of paper, like heís on television or something. 

Either: The company is making some changes and weíve decided to eliminate your position.

Or: The company is making some changes, and weíve decided to eliminate some positions. But youíll be staying on.

I donít want to fucking stay on. I want to get laid off.

Thatís what Richie said after he came out of his layoff meeting that day. I agreed. Me and Richie donít like our jobs. But for whatever reason, maybe because they knew we didnít like our jobs, they made us stay on. 

These are things that fuck with your life, that twist your daily outlook so that you commit road rage, drink wine from the bottle, wonder about the whole capitalist system. 

But me and Richie -- we found ping-pong. 

Fuck it.

Thatís what we said that day. They want to keep us, fuck it. I donít want to work. Thereís no work to do anyway. 

So we went to play ping-pong for the first time together. On the way to the company gym, watching Richie walk the way he walks, I warned him that I was The Ping-Pong Champ of the Entire World.

I have a table in my garage and I periodically destroy my neighbors. 

Thatís what I said.

Whatever, Sucka.

Thatís what Richie said. Then Richie kicked my ping-pong ass. 21-9. His serves were so tight in spin and so quick to the edge, I felt weak in the wrist. I checked the ball on several occasions.

Is this thing lopsided?

Whatever, Sucka.

Thatís what he said. 

I later found out that he grew up in a house with A) a ping-pong table, and B) an older brother. These things make for a good ping-pong player. First, the table allows the young player to develop the necessary skills. Second, the older brother forces the young player to develop a hardened psychological temperament. Itís not easy to beat your older brother.

Richie is older than me, just by a year or two. It might be a psychological edge. But the truth is, the guy has got game. 

Richie, you got game!

I said that through my teeth that first day, after getting kicked 10 games in a row. I was walking back to work, to the sorry-ass job, like I didnít care; but inside I was staggered by Richieís game. 

By the end of the day, I had convinced Richie to play me 10 more times. He beat me 10 more times.

Sucka!

I didnít sleep well that night: Either dreams about getting laid off, or dreams about getting smashed in the face with a ping-pong paddle. 

Next day: 32 games. I won four.

Next day: 14 games (busy day). I won four. I got the feeling Richie gave me those games out of pity. Thatís one of the worst things you can do to a person. Give them something they want desperately, out of pity.

Next day: Richie was sick, and I was bored out of my mind, so bored I convinced this other sorry office hack to play ping-pong and I skunked him three games straight. He quit, like a baby.

Next day, next day, next day. 

Ping-pong, ping-pong, ping-pong. Richie, Richie, Richie. 

Work. 

Ping-pong, ping-pong, ping-pong. 

Ping-pong at lunch. Ping-pong during morning and afternoon breaks. Ping-pong between meetings.

How do they not miss us?

Who cares, Sucka. Serve it.

And ping-pong is no longer a game. Itís more than a competition. Itís a dance. Itís an escape. Itís a daydream during real work. Itís a nervous fire glowing in your belly.

Itís sitting there, grinding your teeth, taking your medicine as Richie sends an IM:

You suck, Sucka!

Me and Richie play ping-pong. Every day. Itís a conversation in another language. Itís something that makes life a little more interesting. Itís something that makes the work hours fun. Itís something that makes me want to go to work. It something that makes me feel human

We donít say these things out loud. We say them with the flourish of the paddle, the passion for each game. And I get better; my wrist gets stronger; my returns get louder.

The forehand rips topspin crosscourt; the forehand rips topspin back. There are no smashes; everything is a smash. 

Backhand backspin, Sucka! 

Donít hit it there!

Donít hit it there! 

Sucka! 

Sucka! 

The longer a point goes, the more the tension builds. Sweat rings under the shirt. End of points: Sucka! Laugh! Shout! Wave at the people watching, the fans, the crowd that has gathered. 

Hope the Boss doesnít come down to watch. 

Fuck him.

Real talk is not permitted. There is no time. 

When you hit that backhand, I thought I had you with the topspin smash.

Thatís what I say.

You thought wrong, Sucka!

Thatís what Richie says.

Then it happened. Richie had consistently kicked my ping-pong ass for weeks. Slowly, surely, I crept in, became better, dealt with the psychological turmoil of getting punched in the ping-pong nose again and again. 

But then, yes, then it finally happened.

Tied at seven games apiece. Work waiting back at the desk; appointment calling on the phone. But here, in Ping-Pong Central, me and Richie are locked in a 15-15 tie in the final game of the day. 

Pivotal moment: Itís my serve for the next five points, meaning I could get much closer to game point at 20. My serve is on today. Richie looks worried. He wipes his left hand on his khaki pants.

Crosscourt topspin serve, too much speed for the human eye: Richie lunges with a forehand, off-balance, somehow returns it, but weakly. I line up the smash. I swing:

I crush the egg-ball Stiga. It clips the top of the net, rides it for a second, then drops on Richieís side. Bounces twice. My point. 

That went under the net.

Thatís what Richie says.

What?

That went under the net. My point.

That didnít go under the net. How can you possibly think that went under the net? That went over the net. My point.

How can you possible say that? It went under the net. You cannot be serious. You cannot be serious.

Richie actually says this. Like John McEnroe. Heís pissed; heís looming over the table. 

It went over the net and bounced on your side. 

No. No way. 

Me and Richie play ping-pong and suddenly itís not fun at all. Itís not a game at all. Itís a conversation and weíre both calling each other fucking liars. Fucking cheats. 

Fine. Whatever. Fuck it. Your point.

Thatís what I say. Thatís how I feel. Fuck it. 

No. No way. Your point. 

Thatís what Richie says. Now itís a competition to see who will back down the best.

No. Your point.

No. Yours. 

Fuck you. Iím serving. 15-16, you.

I say this as I serve.

Richie catches the serve. 

16-15, you.

He bounces the ball back.

How about we play the point again?

Thatís what I say.

Fine.

I serve. I hit it right into the net. On purpose.

There. 15-16, you.

Fuck you. All right, fine.

Thatís what Richie says. 

Maybe heís played this type of game before with his older brother. Maybe heís more prepared. Maybe heís still a little bit better at ping-pong.

Whatever. I can no longer concentrate. I lose the next five points. I lose the game 21-15. I lose the match, after balancing on the threshold of first victory.

Me and Richie donít play ping-pong, donít even speak, for several days. Work sucks. Time passes slowly. We avoid each other, but pretend weíre not avoiding each other. I burn inside, because I was the one who lost. I was the one who backed down. 

Pivotal moment: We could do this forever and whom would it serve? The Boss? 

Fuck it. I message Richie:

Iím gonna get you, Sucka.

He answers right back:

You ready?

Letís go.

Me and Richie play ping-pong. 

We play every day for weeks. We are alive and well.

I end up beating him. Often. We are evenly matched. We play our days away. We seem stronger, thanks to our challenges. We are ping-pong brothers, and nothing can come between that.

Then it happens. Another round of layoffs. Richie gets called in: The Boss tells him heís staying. 

Now I want to stay. I want to play ping-pong. 

But the Boss calls me in, and he tells me theyíre letting me go. 

Iím sorry. I know youíve been working hard.

Thatís what the Boss says. I want to smash him over the head with a ping-pong paddle.

I walk to Richieís desk. I donít even say a word. 

Fuck.

Thatís what he says. 

Letís go play.

Thatís what I say. 

Me and Richie spend the rest of the day playing ping-pong, knowing Iíll get another job, another life. Knowing weíll never play ping-pong like this again.

Sucka! 

Thatís what I say.

Sucka!

Thatís what he says. 

We laugh.
*

Learn About Jamie Allen's "The Horrible Humour Double-Decker Book Tour" & Then Buy "The Horrible Humour & Other Stories" - We Mean It - Buy It - A Long-Winded Review Is Forthcoming On This Site - But Just Freaking Click These Words When You Are Done Reading Them & Spend Six Freaking Dollars ($6) & Buy The Book - It's Actually Worth It - We Will Prove Its Worth In An Upcoming Review Of The Book's Five Stories - Stories That May Remind Readers (If They Were Driving) Of Some Pop-Fiction Reststop Between DFW & George Saunders (If They Were Cities Instead Of Authors) - Mr. Allen's Reststop Is Smart & Funny & Sort Of Nicely Deals With How The Modern Mediated Man (The Stories Are Mainly About Men, Although One Is About A Shark) Deals With Shit, Especially Old-Fashioned Concerns Like Dealing With Other People - Recommendation: Buy!
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