Issue Forty-Two - Summer 2023

Heavy as a Butterfly Ball

By Nicholas Godec

Ryan looked out the window. The tall pines swayed in the strong breeze. Their bristles had started to turn from green to brown. The winds blustered violently. He glanced at the uprooted tree, sorry for the thick mesh of roots that had been torn and uncovered by the storm.

The night before, Ryan had been awake in bed answering an email from his boss, his fiancée Sarah asleep by his side. He’d seen the flash, then the tear in the sky, and seconds later heard a creaking groan followed by a heavy crash that reverberated. The tree had fallen on the power line, taking out everyone’s electricity within two square miles.

“Looks like another four hours. I bet that turns into eight. Dammit!” Ryan’s dad said, his forehead wrinkling sharply as he furled his brows.

“Oh, it’s fine, dear. We can entertain ourselves,” Ryan’s mom said.

Ryan, Sarah, and his parents sat at the round, wooden breakfast table beside the kitchen. His mom had quickly set overnight oats in the fridge and now, four hours later, they struggled to swallow the tough oats that had not fully absorbed the milk into the grain, while sipping the sour, lukewarm coffee made from the faucet.

Ryan felt the buzzing in his ears increase as he considered what his father might say next. At least there was the cacophony of a thousand crickets to drown out whatever might come out of his mouth.

“The good news is we know what’s wrong,” his doctor said the day before.

“We’re thinking rehearsal dinner at my parents’ club. Then having the wedding at their cottage,” Sarah piped up, smiling at her future in-laws. “It’ll be, like, rustic, woodland chic.”

Ryan’s mom gave him a quick, approving nod. He was relieved that she and Sarah were getting along, leaning in to each other across the round table.

His dad was on his phone, constantly hitting refresh on his browser in expectation of a further delay from the power company.

“Let me see it just once more,” Ryan’s mom said, breaking into a grin.

Sarah slowly arched her left hand toward his mom, angling her fingers toward the ground. The one-karat oval diamond glinted from a thin strip of sun that shone from an opening in the clouds through the wide kitchen windows. Ryan saw the cutting glare of the diamond grab his father’s attention.

“Remind me again, there’s no bun in the oven, is there?”

“Dad,” Ryan said. “Come on.”

“Sorry,” his dad huffed, staring over his glasses. “I just didn’t realize you were wise enough to take this beauty off the market all on your own.”

Sarah smiled and reached for the cinnamon, pouring a large amount into her bowl.

Ryan felt a weight attach to his right ear, drawing him toward the table. His mom cast him a worried look.

“Just never forget,” Ryan’s dad continued. “Behind every strong man is a strong behind!” He laughed at his own bad joke, and everyone else let out uneasy chuckles. Then his dad went right back to hitting the refresh button on his phone and intermittently scanning the “Page Six” section of the New York Post.

Ryan heard his mom mention peonies and lilacs over the buzzing.

“I’d love to see them while they’re still in bloom. Let’s go to the garden,” Sarah said, and they both excused themselves. Sarah squeezed Ryan’s forearm and kissed his head.

“So, tell me,” Ryan’s dad said, glancing over his glasses. “Work. You were expecting some news, right?”

Ryan looked into his now-empty coffee cup. He reached for Sarah’s, relieved to feel the liquid slosh as he picked it up. He did the same with his mom’s cup, and consolidated what little remained. He gulped it down, hoping the caffeine would rise to allay the needling in his head.

“Earth to Ryan. Are you listening?” Ryan’s dad said impatiently.

“It looks likely,” Ryan replied. “It would include a raise if I get it.”

His dad grimaced. “So there’s no news. Push harder.”

Ryan felt his ears and neck tighten. “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” he said. “Let’s go play some Ping-Pong.”

“Want to take on the champ, huh? Sure, I’ll fight you for it.”

Ryan cleared his throat and stared at the table a moment. Then he felt his neck stretch as his right ear grew heavier.

“Stretching already?” Ryan’s dad said, as he chuckled to himself and shook his head.

Then the two men made their way to the basement level of the house.

Downstairs was flooded with light from the high-set windows that hung off the ceiling. The ledge of the windows aligned with the trim cut grass and shrubbery from the lawn. The Ping-Pong table was a smooth mahogany. When Ryan was young, his dad spent hours feeding balls to his forehand, and then to his backhand, making sure his topspin and underhand slice were consistent, well-placed, and aggressive. When Ryan missed more than two shots in a row, his dad made him do ten push-ups.

While the table was still new and beautiful, it now had a few scratches from the Hail Mary swings against difficult Ping-Pong balls that passed them by.

The two men began to rally. Ryan felt the room begin to slant underneath him. Two nights ago, he had been checking WebMD for symptoms of a brain tumor, and was sure he was suffering an acoustic neuroma at the very least.

His dad was seventy-three years old and still liked to slam the ball with such gusto that he’d sometimes spin 360 degrees on the follow-through. When Ryan returned a high lob, his dad’s eyes would grow wide and his tongue would slip out of his mouth in the moment before crashing his paddle down on the small orange butterfly ball.

“Where were you? I thought you’d return that,” his dad would say whenever he missed a shot. Ryan felt a hammering on the back of his head.

“Okay, game time,” his dad said, as he bounced the ball repeatedly on the table. The constant thud reverberated, bouncing from one ear to the other.

“You sure you warmed up enough?” Ryan tilted his head and looked up at his father.

“Just volley the damn ball.”

The ball bounced from Ryan’s hand, first on his side of the net and then on his father’s.

“One…two…three…four,” Ryan chimed as they hit the ball back and forth. After the count of four, Ryan’s dad slammed the ball, and it whizzed by Ryan’s buzzing head. It missed the table completely.

“Okay, guess that’s my serve then,” said Ryan in a biting tone. His dad’s thick and unkempt eyebrows narrowed as he cast a fierce glare across the table.

Suddenly feeling dizzy, Ryan latched on to the table, which wobbled underneath him.

“Easy on the goods there.”

The closets, the credenza, and his father’s glare spun all around him until it became a blurry mesh. He closed his eyes and breathed slow and deep. He began to feel his feet beneath him. When he opened his eyes and took his hands off the table, his dad looked at him quizzically.

“You good, Rye?”

“Yeah, just a head rush.”

“For a few seconds, I wondered if your water broke.”

Ryan served crosscourt as his balance shifted, giving the orange ball an extra high bounce and minimal spin. His dad’s hand exploded, connecting paddle to ball to Ryan’s side of the table. The orange ball flew by too quick.

One smiled while the other’s head throbbed.

“Where were you? That was signed, sealed, and delivered right to you.”

“See what happens next time.”

Ryan felt his face grow hot as he let his head throb freely. He focused on his rhythmic breaths, forcing the room to settle. Then he served. The ball moved quickly and with considerable topspin. Ryan’s dad jumped on the defensive, returning an underhand slice. When the returned ball bounced flat and high, Ryan focused and, with force and precision, slammed the ball near the edge of his dad’s side of the table.

“I didn’t see you there,” he mumbled.

“What was that, boy?”

“I didn’t see you there, I said.”

“Lucky shot.”

Ryan’s head throbbed, and his heart beat violently as he served. With Meniere’s disease, you’d be surprised how much meditation can help, his doctor had said. By the end of his service, he led the game three to two, despite the vertigo trying to break through. Across the table, Ryan saw equal focus in his father’s eyes. He could tell his dad was pissed to be trailing.

“Let’s go,” Ryan said. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Ryan’s dad served low, hard, and fast, with such tremendous spin the ball ricocheted off Ryan’s paddle and away from the table.

“I’ve still got a few tricks, boy.”

“Lucky shot,” Ryan retorted.

By the end of Ryan’s father’s service, Ryan was trailing four to six.

“Sprouted a few chest hairs, have we, son?”

Ryan felt his teeth grind. “Fucker,” he said through his clamped teeth.

“What was that?”

Ryan served. His dad swung—too late. Ace. Ryan broke into a smile. There was light and calm. He feigned a hard swing, outlining a large circle with his swinging arm, only to slow down to deliver a short underhand slice at the last moment. His dad was already on his heels and couldn’t adjust in time, netting the ball.

By the end of Ryan’s service, he led nine to six. By the end of his father’s subsequent service, he led twelve to eight. At the next change, it was fifteen to ten, then eighteen to twelve.

Ryan led twenty to fourteen with one serve remaining. He paused and took a long breath as the throbbing died down.

Ryan hit the orange butterfly ball with the center of the paddle, punching it hard on his side of the table. He watched the ball cross over the net in a soundless arc.

Copyright 2023 Godec