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Issue 43, October-December 2013
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Personal Earthquakes
by Henry Presente
Followed by Q&A

Dear Mr. Stevenson,

I hereby resign as Volunteer Player Transporter for the Earl Stevenson Tennis Classic (ESTC). I realize that there are still three rounds left in the tournament and that my resignation may leave you in the proverbial “lurch,” but since the police have detained me upon your request, I presume you have made other arrangements to convey players to the tennis grounds. 

My actions may have cost the world two of the premier talents ever to wield tennis rackets, so yes, I admit that this criminal investigation is merited. However, sir, you have responded reprehensibly to this situation and even if I were a free man, I could not continue to work for someone of your character on an unpaid basis. In my cell, alone with my copies of Tennis World, I sometimes pause to wonder how we could have worked together in the first place.

Then I think back on our interview an eternity of two weeks ago, as the ESTC was still twinkling in the future and not smeared upon the present, and I remember that you are not a bad man, Mr. Stevenson. As I showed you my driver’s license and driving record, you showed me that I was not alone in the world. When you shared your zeal for tennis legend Karlo Kassandri’s unprecedented return to the game at age 43—and his even more improbable success—my family tree grew another limb.

Neither of us could contain our excitement at Karlo’s imminent return to the ESTC, though we were not his fans. Mere fans. Simple fans who adore his laserbeam of a serve and scalpel of a forehand. How many countless tennis stars are equally apt surgeons, dissecting their opponents on the green, grassy operating table in a few short hours? It was not what Karlo removed from his opponents’ bodies and souls, it was what he transplanted into ours: hope, dignity, and gunfire.

Could anyone dispute that when Karlo pulled the trigger during those fateful Olympic Games, we all bled? Not a pedestrian red blood, but a blood as noble and blue as the sky. There he was, standing behind the podium at his press conference, accusing the scoundrels who had demanded that he throw his match. Names dropped from his lips like lead. When the truth of the coarse words he forced through his innocent throat became too heavy, Karlo spoke one more sentence before taking a pistol from his pocket.

Do you remember those words, Mr. Stevenson?

“No jugaré este juego,” he said and then fired a bullet into his own hand, leaving a hole the size of a bleeding walnut.

Perhaps you had to wait for the translation. Until the panic had subsided and Karlo’s body could be whisked away for repair while his spirit grew gangrenous. Until the television reporters could decipher his earthy Basque accent. I do not think you speak Spanish, though his words were simple: “I will not play this game.” But for me, then a humble boy growing up in the sprawl of Las Vegas, the significance shook the soil I stood upon and I felt the tremors of a personal earthquake.

For you see, in that neon city, corruption is not so much what makes the world go round as why the world is round in the first place. It is far easier to cut corners on a sphere than a cube—the work is already done. And here was Karlo, a man who would sacrifice his livelihood in tribute to the world’s amputated corners. Who would offer his own hand as prosthesis.

There is a saying for what those scoundrels, those sporting officials and so-called friends, each asked Karlo to do by lying down on his match: they asked him “to play ball.” But Karlo didn’t want “to play ball,” he only wanted to play tennis.

“No jugaré este juego,” Karlo said and fired the gun into his hand. The blood dripping down my television screen seemed to pool upon the carpet in my family’s living room. Alone, I watched the puddle grow. 

My father was at the bar wagering on soccer matches he would never see. He did not keep up with the players or teams, just the fixes. His winnings were complemented by steady checks from an accounting glitch that a friend in the government had arranged. My mother was busy at her department store job, relieving her cash register of the insult of bills with small numbers. It is safe to say that growing up, everything I learned about honesty, I learned from the family’s TV set, which was stolen.

There was no one at home to ruminate upon Karlo’s early retirement with me, though my family probably would have had little to offer but confused laughter. Even under the scrutiny of nonstop news coverage, Karlo’s dignity was incomprehensibly decent. It was too simple to decipher. News anchors would sigh in exasperation trying to explain an act that needed no explanation. I could not understand either. I could only emulate. 

I was a gorilla pantomiming Karlo’s virtue, yet Karlo’s example was why I refused to cheat on school exams and Karlo’s example was why I bought my gun . . . in case I ever chanced upon an opportunity to underline dignity with blood. This is the very same gun that has received so much attention in the media of late.

The police must have told you—though I know it makes little difference—that the gun is broken. It would not fire when I bought it fourteen years ago and it would not fire when I held it to Robert Sampson’s terrified—yet somehow still smug—face last week. 

Surely, you know that I never intended to use the weapon. After fourteen years sitting in my pocket as my house keys’ constant companion, the gun had become just another key to a door leading nowhere except to my childhood memories. Despite media speculation to the contrary, the chance to meet Karlo was the only reason for my enthusiasm in taking the job as Volunteer Player Transporter. But I admit this enthusiasm was blunted and twisted when you insisted upon driving Karlo to his matches—all of his matches—yourself.

And so that fateful day I found myself behind my car’s steering wheel, surrounded on all sides by heavy traffic and nonstop chatter. Robert Sampson, Karlo’s third-round adversary, would not shut up. He was warming up on me. He was hitting words at me like tennis balls at a brick wall. But I bruise easily.

“I’m gonna ram that old bastard’s serve right back to him,” Sampson kept saying, promising to turn Karlo’s most potent tool against him. Despite my unwavering belief in Karlo, the certainty of this cocky prodigy from Florida punctured my cool. Because it was true that Karlo had come to over-rely on his serve to end matches before his legs would tire, and it was true that Sampson had one of the best returns of serve in the game before that day. 

(His doctors assure me that he will still have a long and lucrative career giving tennis lessons. I believe it will be a satisfying one, too. Under the pretense of “giving instruction,” Sampson will have the perfect excuse to exercise his favorite mouth muscles into Olympic form.)

While Robert Sampson babbled on in my backseat, I turned the radio up. I rolled the window down. Though cold rain splashed on my face, I could not awaken from a nightmarish doubt that Sampson would win the match, cutting short Karlo’s miraculous return to the world of tennis. I grew sad and tired and I rested my head on the steering wheel. It was then that I noticed the gun-shaped bulge in my pocket, as if for the first time. 

You must believe me that when I pulled out the pistol (the broken pistol, I remind you) and pointed it at Robert Sampson’s chubby face, all I wanted was to finish the car ride in silence. Yes, I admit it was satisfying to see his mouth twist in terror, though in hindsight, his expression could have just been preparation to return a hard serve. 

We will never know if Robert Sampson would have bested Karlo, but I saw his reflexes firsthand and they were electric. It would have been a close match.

“Shut up,” I began, but in a flash, Sampson had snatched the gun from my grasp and cracked its butt against my skull. He grabbed the door handle and launched himself out of the car. 

How could I have known Sampson would react like that? How could Sampson have known that traffic had begun moving again? How could Sanford Ignatius, proud owner of a turbo-charged Mercedes Benz, have expected a world class tennis player to throw himself in front of his speeding car?

The crash left us in strange, different, terrible places. It delivered me to this jail cell and it sent Robert Sampson to the emergency room. I imagine it propelled Sanford Ignatius back to the Mercedes dealership. But worst of all, it returned Karlo Kassandri to retirement. 

Mr. Stevenson, it was only natural that Karlo assumed the dark currents swirling in the tennis cosmos had once again conspired to fix a match, this time in his favor. But you know as well as I that the outcome mattered little to Karlo, only the perceived injustice. How could Karlo have done anything but withdraw from the ESTC in a volcanic torrent of insinuations?

You must forgive his allusions that your tournament is rigged, Mr. Stevenson. You know how Karlo is. He is passionate. He gets carried away. The things he said were borne of ignorance—he does not know that Sampson’s injuries were the product of spontaneous circumstances, as you and I do. You must forgive him openly questioning your integrity.

I know Karlo’s allegations have frightened the sponsors and that the tournament’s future is uncertain. I understand why you feel a public retaliation of words is necessary to save face and business, but Karlo is not a “hot-headed rabble rouser who would rather break a contract than break a sweat” as you claimed in the newspapers. He is not “an old, bounced-out ball.”

You must stop your public relations campaign to malign Karlo’s good name. Please, sir, let the future find Karlo in the Hall of Fame. Let people remember the hope, dignity, and gunfire he brought us. Do it for the confused youngsters sitting at home alone, pondering Karlo’s actions and feeling the ground tremble. Though I may have grown dormant, I pray that the world will always shudder with personal earthquakes. 

My lawyer, a well-intentioned, young man, tells me it is a mistake to send this letter. But he has not spoken with you, grasped your hand, and seen that you are more than just a man of business. Crime and criminals are my lawyer’s daily routine. He measures decency only by its distance. Close the gap, Mr. Stevenson.

As a small side note, I must remind you that I too have covered a lot of ground recently. I am enclosing receipts for the gasoline I bought while transporting players during the first two rounds of the tournament. Would you please send the reimbursement check to my attention at the County Prison, care of Officer John Brown? I may be here awhile and this income will cover my subscription to Tennis World, which will soon need renewal.

Thank you for your time.

Your brother in tennis,

Carlos Villa Real

Henry Presente’s creative juices have stained the pages of Harpur Palate, Pear Noir!, The MacGuffin, SmokeLong Quarterly, Jelly Bucket, Reed Magazine, flashquake, and Broken Pencil, among other publications. Occasionally, a Pushcart Prize nomination has sopped up some of the sauce. 


Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: With this story, I wanted to take a tennis ball, inject it with decency and corruption and good intentions, throw it in the air, serve, and see whether it landed in or out.
Q. Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: I’m a big fan of Harpur Palate and SmokeLong Quarterly

Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I start with a rough grain of sand—be it a character, a concept, or a scenario—and then I add to it and sand it down a few thousand times until there’s something smooth and polished rolling around the computer screen.

Q: What living writer to you admire most and why?
A: I like Alex Shakar for how hard he tries and how he sometimes succeeds. And I like the homeless writers in Washington, DC who sell $1 newspapers filled with their words for the same reasons. 

Q: What are you working on now?
A: Balance in life and being a good person. But if you’re talking about writing, then we’re talking about a new short story. Something light-hearted but intense.