A Short Work of Pickleball Fiction
By Jeff Napier
Our pastor, although a very nice, and well-educated guy, isn’t very good at counseling, and he knows it, so I have taken over most of the lay counseling that happens at our church. One day I had an appointment with Jeremy, a 21-year-old fellow who according to rumors, had recently inherited 78 million dollars.
On a Tuesday at 3pm on the dot, he walked into the little church office, and I met him for the first time. He was huge. I mean, he was around 6″ 3′ tall, and big-boned. Well, fat, actually. His pale skin, short blond hair, whispy beard, and goofy sweater made him look even larger. He greeted me with a somewhat unsteady, high-pitched voice.
We started off with small talk. I always like to make my clients feel comfortable as soon as I can. He started slowly and hesitantly, but fairly quickly steered the conversation to his problems, evidently comfortable enough with me already to let go of some of his inner secrets.
First, he said he needed a girlfriend. Then he said, that wasn’t really it. He figured a woman would come along in due course. I agreed, that at 21, he needn’t be in a hurry. I then sat back and just listened. I have learned if you remain silent, people will almost always fill the silence. And, they’ll usually fill it with what they really need to say.
It turns out his real problem is that he just didn’t know where he fit into society. He felt no sense of identity. It didn’t help that his mother had died of cancer three years ago, and his father died of a sudden heart attack just a few months ago. Of course he was still grieving, but it was more than that. He didn’t fit, and that made him lonely. His eyes filled with tears. He explained it wasn’t so much the loss of his parents. He was grieving the loss of himself. He was so sad that he just didn’t know how to “be regular, be a part of society” as he termed it. This great big young man then put his hands over his eyes and broke down into complete sobs of sadness. I waited patiently, as I have learned to do. In time, he recovered, apologized for crying. I told him many of my clients cry, and it is just fine, and actually a good, healing thing. I brought the conversation out to a less heavy level.
I asked about college, but no, he didn’t want to do that. I made a mental note to see if I could direct him toward getting an education at some later point, if he would agree to start seeing me weekly. I wanted to know why he didn’t want college, and he said he had plenty of money, so wouldn’t need a career, and therefore wouldn’t be needing college. I thought about how much fun he was missing out on, but this first session was way too soon for me to start guiding him in any direction.
I have been told that as a counselor, one should follow one’s instincts, one’s curiosity, so I asked about the rumors of his inheritance. The pastor had told me that Jeremy’s family had long supported the church in a big way.
Oh, yes, it was true. He had a team of nine people managing his money. In fact, he wasn’t allowed to manage his inheritance at all until age 25, at which time, he would get full control. In the meantime, he was allowed a trust fund of $6,000 per month, after taxes.
Hmmm, At his age, I could really live it up on that, I was thinking to myself.
Being our first meeting, I just asked a few questions, and let him drive the conversation. It seems he was not only lonely, but felt he was getting fatter by the moment, because all he did was watch TV and drink root beer. He loved his root beer. And, he was having troubles with money.
It’s true. He couldn’t quite make ends meet on the $6,000 per month. By the 20th of the month, he was always borrowing $10 or $20 from his friends for food, was late paying the rent on his apartment, and felt quite embarrassed about that. Oh sure, he paid his friends back right after he got his check, but he felt like he was pretty out of control about the money. I asked him where it all went, and his first response was “I don’t really know. I don’t understand it.” Upon pressing, it seemed quite a bit went into customizing his motorcycles – he had three of them, taking friends to dinners, going to concerts, and buying fancy clothes. Here in the office, he was wearing tattered shorts, worn out Keens, and a T-shirt. Go figure!
He had another problem: Headaches. Everything gave him horrible migraines. Stress. Chocolate. Peanuts. Alcohol – even a single glass of wine. He had been to many doctors, and they prescribed this and that, and every medicine he tried either didn’t work, or gave him other untenable symptoms.
Jeremy was messed up, and I was sure that the Lord could work through me to help him. I convinced him to schedule weekly visits with me. We prayed together for a short while, and then I sent him on his way. He promised to meet me next week.
Jeremy was true to his word, and appeared at the church office right at 3pm the following week, and the week after that, and so on. After about six sessions, I hadn’t really helped him much, but he did seem to enjoy having someone to talk with, even though I was an old gray gent, more than three times his age.
I became convinced he needed an activity, something involving a social group. Church would have been sufficient for some people, but for Jeremy, our various social activities only made him feel more like a misfit. I definitely pushed as hard as I dared to get him to enroll in college, but Jeremy wasn’t having it.
He bought himself a guitar after I hinted around about music, took a few lessons, and gave it up. He spent $5,000 on a fancy electric piano, took a few lessons, and then gave that up, too. I suggested basketball. He laughed at me. I suggested tennis, and he actually tried it, but said it gave him a headache and hurt his knees. I could imagine it did. He was a big guy, but his knees were probably just ordinary size.
Then one day while out for a walk, I saw a bunch of people playing a funny little game that looked like tennis. I stepped closer to the fence, and saw that while it looked like tennis, there were some differences. The courts and nets seemed a bit smaller. And they were using little plastic balls full of holes. They reminded me of whiffle balls that we used with plastic bats to play baseball when we were small children. Most of the people seemed to be elderly, like me, but there were some twenty-somethings and people in their thirties and forties as well. They had a weird way of calling score: They kept saying three numbers, like “7-4-2.” I was going to have to ask about that someday. One of the players who was evidently waiting between games started to approach the fence. I was feeling shy, so I walked away before he could trap me in a conversation.
The following week, figuring it would be easier on the knees, I suggested this new game to Jeremy, and told him where I had seen the people playing. No, he wasn’t going to do that, he told me. As usual, we talked an hour, and I didn’t significantly change his life. I knew our sessions were drawing to a close, because I just couldn’t go on not helping him.
In the next weekly session we started talking about this and that, with me trying to focus him on telling me how his week had been, in case I could find something to leverage that might give me an insight as to how to help him. I had prayed all week for some sort of thing I could do to help Jeremy. So far as I could tell, God didn’t have any direct answer for me. Or at least I couldn’t hear the answer.
My mind started to wander, thinking about God and ‘answers’ and so I wasn’t listening carefully, but I thought I heard Jeremy say something about “pickleball.” I asked him to repeat it. He said simply that the game was called pickleball and he had tried it out. I asked, “And, how was it?”
He said that while he did try it, he didn’t like it, but was at least proud that he had once again tried something new. That had been what I was pushing all along – that he had to keep trying things until the right one came along. I talked metaphorically, because in counseling that can sometimes work where direct advice doesn’t. So I said it was like Julia Child, the famous French chef. Before she took up cooking, she tried hat making. That fully didn’t do it for her, but she kept trying things until she discovered cooking.
I asked why he didn’t like pickleball, and he told me that he felt intimidated. Everything he did, he did wrong. Every time he tried to hit that darn little ball, it went into the net or sailed out of bounds. Every place he stood on the court, the other players told him it was the wrong place. After forty-five minutes, his legs hurt. Not from running around to hit the ball, but from being told he was supposed to stand at the kitchen line, or at the baseline, and then having to quickly move to the other line.
Kitchen line? Yes, evidently, pickleball players have a zone seven feet in front of the net in which they can not hit the ball unless it has bounced. They call this the “kitchen.” On top of everything else, he kept smacking the ball before it bounced, and it embarrassed him. So, he wasn’t going back.
Well, another wasted hour, or so I thought.
The following week, I was planning to tell him our sessions were done, and to suggest a psychologist, hypnotherapist, or an NLP practitioner. I was planning, but never got the chance. He came in wearing a smile. I had never seen Jeremy smile. Ever. It just wasn’t part of his set. But today he smiled. I had to ask. It turns out, on some sort of whim, what he called, “perhaps a self-punishing whim” he went back and played pickleball again. He was a little better than the last time, and some of the people he had played with before had not only remembered him, but welcomed him back with big, open arms. He noted that the fact that they acknowledged him like that made him feel really, really good.
And something else had happened. He didn’t have a headache afterward. Or more specifically, he might have had a headache, but didn’t really notice.
We spent the hour talking about pickleball. Or rather, he talked about pickleball, and I mostly listened. I didn’t have to ask questions to draw him out, and I was smart enough to let him run with it. He was actually, truly excited about something for the first time in his life. I asked about that scoring thing, that business with three numbers. He tried to explain something about “first server” and “second server” but I didn’t get it. That wasn’t important. The important thing was that he was having fun telling me about something that excited him.
Let’s cut out the long middle of the story and go to the end. Jeremy continued to have sessions with me. He became not only a regular pickleball player, but totally enamored of the game. He started to lose weight. I didn’t notice at first, but one day he mentioned he had lost almost twenty pounds. He said he went to a tournament, placed third in mixed doubles along with a young woman, and was rated 3.5, whatever that meant.
In time, I found out what 3.5 meant. Jeremy had been pestering me to come play pickleball, but I had been resistant for a while. I am often too shy for my own good, and I, as a lay counselor, of all people, should know better.
Finally, he wore me down, and on a Saturday afternoon, I tried the game. Just like Jeremy, I was embarrassed by my own foolishness. It reminded me of my first time square dancing. My wife took me, and all evening I was always in the wrong place, facing the wrong direction, and doing the wrong things.
At least I was facing in the right direction in pickleball. But one time, I even got that wrong. Someone hit the ball high and far back, and I ran backward to get it. Somehow, I fell over my own feet, and bumped my head. Oh, that hurt. Fortunately, it wasn’t serious. I was able to get up and keep playing. The other players explained to me that a person needs to turn around facing away from the net, to run behind a high ball, stop, turn around facing the net again and then hit the ball, in order to be safe and effective. Evidently, it is faster to turn and run forward, than to try backpedalling. Yes, I was fully embarrassed to fall in front of those people. It could have been worse. I was almost injured. I swore in a very un-religious way to myself that I would never, ever play pickleball again.
I was back on Sunday. And Monday. And Tuesday, and for the life of me, I can’t tell you why. But I was really, truly enjoying it. I tried to explain it to my wife, but she just shook her head and said, “Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” evidently acknowledging my new interest and giving me her support.
It’s nice being retired. Besides my work at the church, I have an open schedule, and I’ve been filling it with pickleball. I now know why they have a three-part scoring system, and even know what it is, from personal experience, to be a 3.5.
Oh, Jeremy. You might be wondering how it turned out for him. The years passed, and he stayed with pickleball, playing nearly all day, every day. He became very physically fit. His headaches mostly subsided. He explained to me that he still has headaches from time to time, but for the most part, they are so minor, so much in the background, he just tunes them out, and can enjoy whatever he is doing. He says part of the problem may have been the root beer. He has given up most sugary and starchy foods.
I asked him about that. He said he noticed some of the pickleballers who were in their sixties and seventies were as spry as kittens. That they could move like 16-year-olds on the court. Upon talking with them about that, he found a common thread among them. Their diets were light on sugary and starchy foods. Sugar, as he put it, is an enemy to good health and energy. He had even given up his beloved root beer. He said it was easy when he figured it was partially to blame for his headaches.
On his 25th birthday, he came into full control of his inheritance. I was worried that he’d blow the whole works on a yacht, buy a sports team or a TV station, or find some way to spend all the money quickly. But no, he bought an average three-bedroom house for himself and his wife. Yes, I did say his wife. He met a pretty little thing on the pickleball courts. She’s the one who placed third with him in his first tournament. She adores him as much as he adores her. She is as tiny as he is tall. They are a great couple. They have come for a couple of co-sessions with me. Not because they need anything, but just want to “stay tuned-up as a couple,” as they call it. I can tell they are lifers. They’ll stay together for the long run. I saw her last week, and noticed she is pregnant. I asked, and sure enough, they are expecting twins. “Two more pickleballers,” she explained.
Late breaking news: The four city pickleball courts were becoming overcrowded. As you may have heard, pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. Jeremy and his wife have made arrangements with the City Parks and Recreation Department to donate $300,000 for six brand new courts. I can’t wait until they’re built!
It seems God has given Jeremy, and the rest of us, an answer in the form of a little plastic ball full of holes.