WHO’LL CARRY HER IN HIS ARMS?
Alexander and Leo Shargorodsky
He was ten years my senior, tall, well groomed and taciturn, and whenever he lost, he would hurl his ping-pong paddle right into the bushes. I couldn’t stand watching that marvelous paddle fly into a thicket of elder trees, into the mud or into a puddle of water, for this was no ordinary paddle, but the rubber kind I always dreamt of owning. And so I let him win. Not that it was an easy thing to beat him. Not on your life!
“Valdis!” his mother admonished him, “either play or throw a fit, but, for God’s sake, make up your mind!”
The ping-pong table stood behind a green fence overgrown with bushes opposite the old Avota station in Riga. It stood at some distance from the veranda fitted with colored panes of glass. Through them you could see the world just as you wished to — blue, red, green, orange, whatever.
In the garden grew dahlias, and among them flitted honeybees, and among the dahlias and the bees bounced a white celluloid ball. I still remember its smell to this day.
Valdis’ mother, a tall woman with long, golden hair, would always sit on a swing and rock back and forth. She was an invalid, and each day Valdis would lift her up and carry her in his arms from the veranda and set her down on the swing. Even today the swing squeaks in my ears.
She loved to watch us play. The sound of the ping-pong ball seemed to cheer her up. In her blue eyes shone the wide, blue sea.
She was profoundly convinced that only good people play ping-pong. Where she came up with such a notion was anybody’s guess. Is it really true that Doctor Goebbels couldn’t pick up a paddle and play? Well, Valdis’ mother thought so.
Few people played table tennis in those days. Latvians, like Valdis’ mother, had been familiar with it before the Stalinist “liberation” of 1939, and so were their neighbors, the Lithuanians. They were all passionately enamored of those two magic words “ping-pong” and must have felt, as I still do to this day, the excitement of a Magellan on sighting land or of Archimedes when he leapt out of the bathtub crying “Eureka!”
In those years, we adored the Chinese and regretted that we were not of that race, because no one in the whole world played table tennis better than they did. Even Mao-Tse-Tong played the game. So did his friend, Stalin, who was, as is well known, the greatest athlete of all.
Of course, Valdis’ mother was of another opinion.
“I am sure,” she said to me on that occasion, “that this Mao couldn’t even serve, let alone return a ball. As for his friend Stalin, well, I doubt he even knows how to hold a paddle right.”
Valdis’ mother was obstinate in her blasphemy. I insisted that this was impossible, but she dismissed my objections with sneering contempt.
“Haven’t I told you already that only good people play ping-pong. Besides, I can’t forgive them for taking me away right in the middle of a match, just when I was closing in. The score was 18:16 . . .”
Valdis’ mother was unusually reticent this morning. Valdis too was very guarded as he served the ball. The two seemed to be holding something back from me. The dacha, too, and its veranda with its multi-colored glass and the green train rushing past and the Latvians and swarthy Jews on Riga’s amber beaches were all holding something back, something mysterious and enigmatic that made me think of abandoned millstones turning blindly in the Baltic night.
Two men stopped by the fence to watch us play. There was nothing noteworthy about them. They were flaxen-haired, wore knitted shirts, loose trousers and shiny black shoes. Still, their appearance had an unsettling effect on Valdis. He began missing his shots, his serve wouldn’t work and his returns missed their target by a mile. He pulled himself together for a moment and even managed to slam the ball with his usual panache. This was his crowning hit, but the ball flew over the fence. One of the strangers threw it back to him.
After this, the ball ceased to obey our will, as if a spell had been cast on it. It flew wherever it felt like.
Valdis’ mother was disturbed by what was going on. She stopped rocking on the swing and asked for the score.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Valdis said, “you know how people love ping-pong. These men like to watch, too.”
She was silent for a while.
“Should I invite them in, perhaps,” I said for no apparent reason.
“Sonny,” she answered me, “they know nothing about ping-pong. People like that don’t play table tennis.”
How she knew which ones play the game and which don’t mystified me to no end.
We continued slapping the ball across the net. I say “slapping” because you could hardly call it a game any more.
The two men watched by the fence, as if nothing were happening. They then reached deep into their coat pockets, brought out their cigarette cases and lit up a Siberka. The smoke of the cigarettes drifted rudely over the table.
The score stood at 18-16 when they opened our iron gate and entered the garden. Instantly, the honeybees flew off.
“Well, for goodness’ sake, let’s go,” one of the men said, smiling.
Valdis started walking. You could sense that he had been waiting for them. And that his mother had been waiting for them. And the whole sad garden. Except, perhaps, for the bees, who had already flown away.
He handed me the rubber paddle and said: “Here, this is for you.”
My dream paddle stared me directly in the face. Yet, I was anything but happy.
“Couldn’t we finish the game, Valdis?” I asked naively.
“Next time,” he answered and walked on between two pairs of shiny black shoes. He didn’t even bother to carry his mother onto the veranda with its multi-colored glass.
Valdis’ mother sat in utter silence for a long time. And then, as she thought of Valdis, her deep, blue eyes welled up with tears.
“Who’ll carry me in his arms now?” she asked, turning suddenly to me.
When I returned the next day, the dacha was boarded up. Two crude sheets of wood had been nailed across its front door.
The swing no longer squeaked, the dahlias drooped and the colored panes of glass seemed grey and dull. And the bees? They had fled long ago.
The ping-pong table stood in its rightful place, but instead of a net on the table, I saw the left-overs of a ham sausage, some wrappings with grease marks on them and, in the middle, two black bottles topped by white porcelain corks.
Four fellows were sitting at the table, all wearing knitted shirts, all look-alikes. Still, I recognized the two fellows who had come the day before. All four were playing cards and drinking stout from the black bottles, while one-eyed kings and tarnished queens flew across the table.
“How about some stout, boy!” one of the men asked, looking me straight in the face.
“I don’t like stout,” I replied.
“Then beat it!” he hollered, “there won’t be any ping-pong around here no more! So get lost!”
He neighed like a horse. Then one of the men pinched my ear and admonished me in his drawling voice:
“Take my advice, boy, give it up. Only bad people play ping-pong.”
I left and walked along the fence, my ear still burning.
Turning the corner, I saw the men in their silken shirts and black shoes. They were pale and bloated like worms after a shower of rain.
No one ever again looked after the ping-pong table. People sat on it, reclined on it, played dominos on it, but no one cared to bring it in when it rained. It eventually warped and gave way. They burned it at the merry Latvian festival called “Ligo”.
In its place, they built a skating rink and then tore that down to make room for a dance floor.
All this happened long ago. Yet even today, when I’m in a foul mood, when I am brimming over with hatred for all mankind, I instinctively pick up my paddle, that same rubber paddle Valdis gave me as he walked out of the garden. I find myself again under the pine tree branches with the sky above.
The nastiness of life seems to have washed away like a sandcastle succumbing to an incoming wave. Everything is once again simple and good.
I wonder why.