***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Ryan McIlvain
THE RADICALS by Ryan McIlvain
What was he doing in a graduate course in Marxist theory, anyway? He didn’t look the part. He wore stretched-out polo shirts to class, old road-race T-shirts, an almost constant smile. He intrigued me. On the night Sam Westergard came to class in an oversize Roger Federer T-shirt, I rustled enough to pay him my compliments on it. “Hey, thanks,” he said, with startling good cheer.
Pretty soon Sam and I were playing tennis together most Friday mornings and whenever else we could get away from the city and classes, the teaching, underpaid, the grading, underpaid, the life, underpaid. Tennis was a balm and a crucible all at once. We each wanted to win, obviously, very badly, but we also wanted to maintain the illusion that our “practice sets” were only that—a little practice, a lark, a pair of pale intellectuals disgracing the game with our play . . . It wasn’t an easy false premise to keep up: The sweat started pouring off me usually in the first game, or else I’d notice Sam’s jaw, strangely squarish for his face, jutting out like an old cash drawer after he sent a ball into the net or sailing long. I started calling him Lockjaw. Or Little Lockjaw—a reference to his tall, lordly stature. I probably didn’t know Sam well enough to joke with him like this, not at first, but what else could I say? I couldn’t have known I was standing across the net from a murderer, and neither could he.
“M or W?” I said one morning in April, the cruelest month, apparently. I had my Wilson Pro pinned, head down, to the grainy green of the court, the frame making its thin crackling music as I rotated the handle between thumb and forefingers, ready to spin it loose.
“No, no, no,” Sam said, smiling at me. “Do the thing.” He saw my face and said again, “Do the thing. From last time? The
one about the revolution—right, comrade?”
In the last few outings he’d started calling me comrade. I didn’t know how to read it, or what he wanted from me now. His face was simple and expectant, eyes gray—neutral eyes. A little curl still hung around his light brown hair at the sides and bottom, but at the top, all wispy like smoke, all you saw was the sun on his broad forehead.
“ ‘Up with the revolution, down with capitalism’?” he said. “Wasn’t it something like that?”
“Oh, yeah. Well, so you know it already.”
The racket spun and clattered to rest, the white W of the Wilson logo pointing up. “Up with the revolution it is,” I said.
“I forgot to call it,” Sam said, looking guilty.
I let him serve first, suddenly impatient to be back at the baseline. Was I a performer to him, a bearded lady? I couldn’t read his smile. We played to four–all in the first, all my slices coming back with interest. I’d noticed Sam was weak coming over his two-handed backhand, so I swallowed my pride and kept it high and to the ad side, looping the balls high over the net, Nadal-like, the yellow orbs rising and falling like suns. At the zenith of a shot you could see the ball freeze-framed against the Hoboken trees, tall beeches, and the power lines beyond, the rich brownstones with the wrought-iron balconies and the zigzag of fire escapes—the playground of the gentry, and we were crashing it. Anyway, we were graduate students, de facto experts in our contradictions: squeamish adjuncts, fake-casual athletes, complicated atheists. Sam was once a Mormon, he’d told me, and come to think of it he still looked the part—blond, looming. For my part I looked like my Russian Jewish father—dark hair, easy five o’clock shadow, a certain basset hound wariness about the eyes. And the old man’s paunch, too. Tennis was
supposed to be my exercise.
By the second deuce of the four–all game, our play had devolved into clay-court bullshiting, lob after yawning lob, a game of chicken more than tennis. A pair of seniors warmed up on the next court over, looking askance at us in their golf shirts, high shorts, stinging white socks, their rally balls ticking back and forth metronomically, and low over the net, like grown-up shots. The next ball to land at all short I took early, ginning myself up for a crosscourt screamer. Good knee bend, snapping the racket up and over, the ball buzzing the net cord—I was in my prime again. I followed the shot to net, split step, lunge, and fuck if the ball wasn’t by me. The passing shot landed an inch from both lines; I stared dumbly, panting, my racket puddled at my feet.
On the next point, advantage Westergard, I sent a flat serve halfway to the back fence. The second serve came off my racket like a badminton birdie, floating to the middle of the service box, sitting up a foot above the net for Sam to angle easily away.
“Fuck,” I said, loud enough for Sam to hear me across the net—his sudden chagrined downcast look, the disapproving stares of the men on the next court.
Sam held to love in the next game to take the set. When he started his lope toward the water bottles sentineling the net post, I intercepted his path with my outstretched hand. I was done for the day. Tapped out.
“You’re sure, comrade?” he said, and that same gnomic smile again. He held my handshake a beat too long, my hands wet and red at the extremities. A crescent of sweat glued my shirt to my upper chest, a spidery network of perspiration lines ran down my forehead and into my eyes. Yes, I was sure. And why did he keep calling me comrade? What was that about?
“You okay?” Sam said.
I was staring at him.
“ ‘Comrade’?” I said. “Am I a comrade to you?”
Sam’s face changed so suddenly, eyes wide and adrenal, I knew I’d let in my Trotskyist street voice, my meanness. I
hadn’t meant to.
“I wasn’t trying to offend,” Sam said. “I was just kidding.”
“I’m not offended.”
“Oh . . . good . . . I just—”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I just wasn’t sure what you meant by it.”
I went over to my racket bag, arranging my gear just so: spare balls, grip tape, shock absorber, keys, phone, wallet. Tinkering,
really. Sam stared at his feet as he fingered loose the laces of his tennis shoes, taking out of his bag the faded brown loafers he usually shuffled into class in, like moccasins he’d worn them so thin. Tall guy, tiny shoes—at least in that he followed the uniform of the day.
“I mean,” Sam finally said, his voice upcurling in a gesture of détente, an olive branch, “I guess I thought I was using the word like you use it when you talk about your friends, your ‘comrades’ in the East Village? Not much of a proletariat around NYU, I wouldn’t think.”
“You’d be surprised. You can have a trust fund and still care about social justice,” I said. “And most of my comrades live on the Jersey side or in Queens.”
“You’re serious, then? You’re a believer?”
I bristled at Sam’s choice of words—it wasn’t the first time, it wouldn’t be the last—but yes, I said, I was a socialist. You couldn’t sit through hours-long ISO meetings without a certain conviction to gird you, and you sure as hell couldn’t stomach five years of reading in abstruse Marxist polemics. It did matter to me. It mattered a lot. It took up a lot of my time, but I gave it gladly.
Sam Westergard blinked at me. He looked chastened and sensitive, his pale face rounding into some kind of recognition, but I wasn’t sure of what, and I don’t think he was either. He looked like he wanted to ask me something but stopped short, tentative now.
“Take last month,” I said. “Some of my ISO comrades at NYU—that’s the International Socialist Organization, by the way—do you know it? Well, they were organizing a sit-in to put pressure on the university administration. The university wouldn’t disclose their real estate holdings, didn’t want to admit to the embarrassingly large swath of lower Manhattan they either own or have investments in. Classic sign of corporate excess: Shut the blinds, turn the lights off. The monopolist doesn’t take kindly to people asking about his monopoly—cramps his style. The sit-ins were entirely peaceful, laid-back, no destruction of precious NYU property, nothing like that, but they weren’t going to move until their demands were met. Finally the campus security got called in, people got dragged out of the building by their hair in the middle of the night. It got ugly. The administration showed their true colors, and it was all on TV. Anyway, those were some of my comrades.”
“Did it work?” Sam asked.
“Did what work?”
“Did the university disclose its holdings?”
“Not yet,” I said.