I walked past a tennis court and, with the sun high in the sky and the scattered clouds as white as cotton balls, I thought of Mike and all the summers that were taken from him.
His name was
He was my doubles partner when we were kids, back when we dreamed we might someday make our livings playing tennis together.
He was so intelligent—blond and wiry, with eyeglasses he seldom took off. He was a much better player than I, but in doubles the combined efforts of two teammates can exceed the sum of their individual skills. His face would flush crimson when something went wrong on the court, but the anger would fade as rapidly as it had arrived. He was flashy, I was steady—he sometimes called me “the human backboard”—and I loved playing tournaments with him.
All these years later, I stood next to the empty court. It had a Har-Tru surface—green clay with a sandlike coating—and I could see footprints of the players who had used it last and marks where the ball had landed. Those scuffs on a court are an autobiography of the match just played.
With Mike, each day was a new promise. We might win, we might advance in a tournament, we might come home with a trophy. The intoxicating whoosh of compressed air escaping from a metal can of tennis balls, the signature scent from within—every time, it felt like sunrise.
He kept getting better at the game and decided to concentrate on singles, while I stayed mostly the same. I knew instinctively I would never be as good without him, and I wasn’t. I ran some municipal courts one summer, but that was as close to being a professional tennis player as I would ever get.
One March night on the cusp of spring in 1967, Mike was flying back to college at the University of Michigan when the Lake Central Airlines Convair 580 on which he was a passenger crashed near Marseilles, Ohio. All 38 aboard died instantly. He was 19. A friend we’d known since childhood was given the dreadful task of making the official identification.
All the things Mike has missed out on in the 55 years since the crash: falling in love and getting married, finding out where life might take him, hearing the great music that arrived on car radios, seeing the famous movies that have come and gone. All the tennis matches he never played, all the books he never read—all the summer nights, all the cheeseburgers, all the laughter.
He was magical on every court he ever stepped onto. Now, on this warm afternoon, I stepped alone onto the Har-Tru surface so that my shoes would leave their pair of marks. Then I stepped to the side to leave a second set. On days like this, I see his face.
Mr. Greene’s books include “And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship.”
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Appeared in the July 28, 2022, print edition.