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I got one yesterday, so I could play tonight. It was the third shot this year, the 13th of my career, and by far the most alarming. The doctor, not my regular doctor, told me brusquely to assume the position. I stretched out on his table, face-down, and his nurse yanked down my shorts. The doctor said he needed to get his seven-inch needle as close to the inflamed nerves as possible. But he couldn't enter directly, because my herniated disks and the bone spur were blocking the path. His attempts to circumvent them, to break the Club, sent me through the roof. First he inserted the needle. Then he positioned a big machine over my back to see how close the needle was to the nerves. In and out and around he maneuvered the needle, until my eyes filled with water.
Finally he hit the spot. Bull's-eye, he said.
In went the cortisone. The burning sensation made me bite my lip. Then came the pressure. I felt infused, embalmed. The tiny space in my spine where the nerves are housed began to feel vacuum packed. The pressure built until I thought my back would burst.
Pressure is how you know everything's working, the doctor said.
Words to live by, Doc.
I'm seven years old, talking to myself, because I'm scared, and because I'm the only person who listens to me. Under my breath I whisper: Just quit, Andre, just give up. Put down your racket and walk off this court, right now. Wouldn't that feel like heaven, Andre? To just quit? To never play tennis again?
But I can't. Not only would my father, Mike, chase me around the house with my racket, but something in my gut, some deep unseen muscle, won't let me. I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon, because I have no choice. No matter how much I want to stop, I don't. I keep begging myself to stop, and still I keep playing, and this gap, this contradiction between what I want to do and what I actually do, feels like the core of my life.
At the moment my hatred for tennis is focused on the dragon, a ball machine modified by my fire-belching father and set up on the court he built in our yard in Las Vegas. Midnight black, mounted on big rubber wheels, the dragon is a living, breathing creature straight out of my comic books. It has a brain, a will, a black heart—and a horrifying voice. Sucking another ball into its belly, the dragon makes a series of sickening sounds. As pressure builds inside its throat, it groans. As the ball rises slowly to its mouth, it shrieks. And when the dragon takes dead aim at me and fires a ball 110 miles an hour, the sound it makes is a bloodthirsty roar. I flinch every time.
My father has deliberately made the dragon fearsome. He's given it an extra-long neck of aluminum tubing, and a narrow aluminum head, which recoils like a whip every time the dragon fires. He's also set the dragon on a base several feet high and moved it flush against the net, so the dragon towers above me. I'm small for my age, but when standing before the dragon, I look tiny. Feel tiny. Helpless.