[This piece is the second in a multi-part fictional essay that I wrote last fall. As I noted in framing the first section of the essay, it is something that I sought to frame out drawing some inspiration from a Fitzgerald short story called, Six of One. I will look to publish the final installment of this piece in the days ahead.]
“Only it was too bad and very American that there should be all that waste at the top.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Two months later, our father sat on the stairs with a melancholy look. Charlie was preparing to leave for New York. My Dad said, “We need to talk.” Charlie offered a brooding look of disinterest, then followed him out to the porch.
The conversation was meant to be private, but my father’s raised voice ensured it wasn’t. It was there for all ears to hear. “Charlie, I am incredibly disappointed in your preparations. How many times have I said it is not about the will to win, but the will to prepare to win.”
Now, his voice was rising louder and louder. “If you can’t hold serve, you can’t compete at this level. The data is conclusive. You aren’t even willing to look at it, let alone internalize it.”
Charlie response was short, compact and powerful like a blistering serve that your opponent doesn’t even try to return. “The problem isn’t the data. The problem is you.”
Charlie slowly got to his feet. “The problem is you.”
Suddenly, my father’s tone shifted. “Charlie, I understand the pressure. I understand what you are feeling. Let me help you.” It was too late. And in a few minutes more, without another word, he was gone.
I would have loved to have had just a minute with him. In the hours that followed, I convinced myself that some important and profound words would have come to me. I had read a thousand books. I was a devotee of all the great writers. And yet, the flash thoughts at that moment were banal. The default was silence. The chance to shape the moment slipped away.
The fact that Charlie’s match was televised, and had received some nice pre-tournament commentary, was perhaps the worst possible outcome. Nothing reinforced our absence like the impersonal distance of a flat screen.
My father watched the first two sets. He was charting the match and muttering. I wondered what he was planning to do with the data and quietly hoped that I wasn’t his default for near real-time analysis. Perhaps it was just the routine of it, I mused. He didn’t offer his thinking. I didn’t ask.
Charlie’s play on the court was a maddening mixture of momentary genius followed by haphazard stupidity. It was as if he couldn’t see the court. He would go for incredible shots when he should have stroked the ball and looked to rally. He would massage the shots he usually put away.
You didn’t need a spreadsheet to see a player that was lost. The announcers noted his distraction. They speculated about his nerves as he looked for a first-time success on the professional stage. They told the story of an Academy standout, coached by his father, and wondered aloud about his missing presence in the players’ box.
After two sets, there was no mystery to the outcome. All that was left to do was for Charlie to lose. It came with shocking speed like the blistering forehand that had been such a hallmark of his junior success.
When I talked to him that night, I said hello and then could find nothing more heartfelt to offer than a quiet “Sorry.” Fortunately, Charlie jumped into the void. “You understand, brother. You get it. I need him there and also need him not to be there.”