Short Story: The Tetherball Match

* Today was our first day back at the school where I teach. I got the idea for this story from all of my amazing students, and especially the tetherball players that battle for glory day in and day out under the spirit-slaying Cali sun. Enjoy!

It was 103 degrees outside, and the play yard was on fire. En fuego, if you were a Spanish speaker. And Marcos was. His parents were Mexican-born migrant workers, who followed the crop. And so Marcos spent 6 months every year residing in a small town in the center of Texas called Harper, and the other half in Napa, California, where he was in the fifth grade at Mondavi Elementary.

In class he was well behaved, the kind of kid teachers secretly wish to clone. Always arrived on time for school. Never talked out of turn. Always raised his hand to get the teacher’s permission to sharpen his pencil.

Out on the tetherball courts, though, all the kids knew him as El Corazon.

El Corazon in English means The Heart, and you’ll understand why this was his nickname soon enough. The kid didn’t have much in the way of height but he made up for it in jumping ability. Dude could get up 3 feet in the air. And he was a brilliant strategist. A real student of the game. He knew every trick in the book, and he’d use them all to beat you.

For 2 years at Mondavi Elementary, El Corazon ruled the tether ball world. Even the teachers would discuss his prowess with each other out on the lawn.

As champ, he enjoyed a number of privileges normal kids could only dream of. He had an entourage of 6 kids, all of whom spent their entire lunch recess rooting for his success. And he could cut the tether ball line whenever he felt like it and the other players had to let him.

That day, when the recess bell went off, all the kids raced to the courts in order to get into an early game.

Marcos didn’t even head over there until ten minutes had passed.

He’d been eyeing the competition from a four square court across the way.

He wasn’t impressed. He needed something different today. And he wasn’t talking about any of the usual suspects — Benny “the Bull” Guitierrez , Janice “Nosebreaker” Hong, Tina the Terrible, and “Super” Mario Rivers — all of whom had grown undeserved reputations, he thought, out on the court.

He would need to recruit an opponent from outside of his peers for a challenge, he decided. And so without warning he strapped on the yellow headband that bore his nickname in bright red letters (his mother sewed it for him), and walked over to Lance, a playground aide who was looking rather bored at the moment.

Lance was a college student who spent recess chasing down kickballs in the bushes and umpiring baseball games.

When the small boy with the curious headband approached him in the yard and asked to play a game of tether with him, Lance mistook him for a socially challenged lad in need of a friend.

And so he said “sure.” Well this pleased Corazon immensely, but all he did was smile and begin his lengthy stretching routine.

Two fourth graders were in the middle of a game, but they knew to clear out for Corazon. Plus, they were excited about witnessing such a match. In truth the entire tetherball area and beyond was buzzing with energy.

The baseball players came over to root for Lance when word got to them about the match. They clapped into their mitts and howled when the playground aide stepped onto the court.

The other tetherball players — some of whom were Mexican American, some of whom were not — didn’t always like Corazon (apart from Marcos’s entourage, who were unwavering in their support) but they did respect him and in truth, he was one of them. So they whooped it up for him as he assumed the position to begin.

Still not understanding the situation, Lance allowed the little boy to serve the ball in.

Corazon pounced on him from the beginning, whipping a serve past Lance while the man was adjusting his eye glasses. The baseball jocks booed but Corazon was off, sending the next two balls up and over and just out of reach of the man.

The playground aide did eventually recover and caught the next shot in his hands, before launching it two trips around the pole. The tetherball players started biting at their nails. This was serious.

Lance caught the ball and composed himself. Then he gathered his strength and served a ball at such a height even the tether ball players had to marvel. But Corazon was ready this time. He bent his knees as far as they would go, and sprang into the air as if he had an invisible pogo stick he was utilizing. The boy caught the ball in mid air and brought it down to earth. Lance could only laugh nervously; he didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone jump that high. The tetherballers went nuts, and started rattling the metal fence adjacent to the court.

Ball finally in his hand, Corazon looked for a long time at his opponent. Lance was as serious as he’d ever looked during the game. Then Marcos got an idea. The boy went ahead and made like he was going for the high launch, as the college student prepared his leap into the air to meet the ball that would be approaching. At the last possible moment he stopped, Lance already rising in the air. And in that next instant, El Corazon did something that would keep his legend alive long after he graduated from Mondavi Elementary — he finessed the ball around the pole in a quick, sharp motion.

Lance, realizing his error, lost his balance and slipped and fell. And that was when Corazon sent the ball three more times around the pole for the victory.

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