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Work your volleys, my father yells, or tries to. An Armenian born in Iran, my father speaks five languages, none of them well, and his English is heavily accented. He mixes his v's and w's, so it sounds like this: Vork your wolleys. Of all his instructions, this is his favorite. He yells it until I hear it in my dreams. Vork your wolleys, vork your wolleys.
I get an idea. Accidentally on purpose, I hit a ball high over the fence. I catch it on the wooden rim of the racket, so it sounds like a misfire. I do this when I need a break, and it crosses my mind that I must be pretty good if I can hit a ball wrong at will.
My father hears the ball hit wood and looks up. He sees the ball leave the court. He curses. But he heard the ball hit wood, so he knows it was an accident. He stomps out of the yard, to the desert. I now have 4½ minutes to catch my breath and watch the hawks circling lazily overhead.
My father likes to shoot hawks with his rifle. Our house is blanketed with his victims, dead birds that cover the roof as thickly as tennis balls cover the court. My father says he doesn't like hawks because they swoop down on mice and other defenseless desert creatures. He can't stand the thought of something strong preying on something weak. (This also holds true when he goes fishing: Whatever he catches, he kisses its scaly head and throws it back.) Of course he has no qualms about preying on me, no trouble watching me gasp for air on his hook.
Violent by nature, my father is forever preparing for battle. He shadowboxes constantly. He keeps an ax handle in his car. He leaves the house with a handful of salt and pepper in each pocket, in case he's in a street fight and needs to blind someone. Of course some of his most vicious battles are with himself. He has chronic stiffness in his neck, and he's perpetually loosening the neck bones by angrily twisting and yanking his head. When this doesn't work he shakes himself like a dog, whipping his head from side to side until the neck gives and makes a sound like popcorn popping. When even this doesn't work, he resorts to the heavy punching bag that hangs from a harness outside our house. My father stands on a chair, removes the punching bag and places his neck in the harness. He then kicks away the chair and drops a foot through the air, his momentum abruptly halted by the harness. The first time I saw him do this, I had no doubt he'd killed himself. I ran to him, hysterical. Seeing the stricken look on my face, he barked: What the f--- is the matter with you?
Most of his battles, however, are against others, and they typically begin without warning, at the most unexpected times. In his sleep, for instance. He boxes in his dreams and frequently punches my dozing mother. In the car too. If another driver crosses him, if another driver cuts him off or objects to being cut off by my father, everything goes dark.
I'm riding with my father one day, and he gets into a shouting match with another driver. My father stops his car, steps out, orders the man out of his. Because my father is wielding his ax handle, the man refuses. My father whips the ax handle into the man's headlights and taillights, sending sprays of glass everywhere.
Another time my father reaches across me and points his handgun at another driver. He holds the gun level with my nose. I stare straight ahead. I don't move. I don't know what the other driver has done wrong, only that it's the automotive equivalent of hitting into the net. I feel my father's finger tensing on the trigger. Then I hear the other driver speed away, followed by a sound I rarely hear—my father laughing. He's busting a gut.
Such moments come to mind whenever I think about telling my father that I don't want to play tennis. Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don't want to upset him. I don't dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset. If he says I'm going to play tennis, if he says I'm going to be No. 1 in the world, that it's my destiny, all I can do is nod and obey.