Saturday, July 30, 2005

jalasso pei, part-time potential junior tennis champ (III)

[part two]

Part Three: The Tennis Bag . . .

“Okay, I’m not looking!” Jalasso announced to Tommy. She had her face turned toward the wall, her eyes closed, and both hands in front of her face for good measure. She really wanted to look like she wasn’t looking.

“Do you promise this time?” he asked. The last two times, she had been peeking.

“I’m not supposed to know where my racquet that needs to be restrung really is,” she explained for the fourth time. “So I can’t see where you put it.”

“I know,” Tommy said for the third time. “But you keep looking!”

“Bad habits,” Jalasso said. “But I have them under control now. Go.”

She heard Tommy rustling the heavy black and yellow tennis bag she’d given him. Obviously, she intended him to carry the lamp away with him, but she thought she could provide herself some protection from accidentally giving herself away by not seeing the crime. She tried not to imagine exactly how the lamp might be slipped into one of the side pouches meant to hold up to four rackets on each side. She tried not to wonder if the zipping sound she heard might be Tommy’s putting the cosmetics bag of glass in the front pouch intended for clusters of loose practice balls. And she tried even harder not to turn her head and look at how he was packing the bag once it occurred to her that he might put a couple of racquets in with it, and those might get scratched by that stupid Tiffany lamp. But she couldn’t look! Otherwise, she might end up blabbing if she knew where the lamp had gone. She wouldn’t mean to, but sometimes the words came out of her mouth before she could make them stop.

She heard someone clear her throat at the far end of the room. Jalasso’s mother stood in the doorway of her daughter’s bedroom. She frowned, eyes narrowed, hands on her hips. “Where do you think you’re going, young lady?” she asked.

Jalasso whirled and stared up at her mother in surprise. She glanced over and saw that Tommy had gotten the lamp safely packed away, but she felt her heart slamming against her chest all the same. She wasn’t safe yet. Her meeting with Johann Bjornbornssen still might be lost!

“What?” Jalasso asked, almost shouting in her nervousness.

“Excuse me?” her mother asked. “Is that any way to talk to you mother?” She glanced at Tommy, who stood nearby, looking at her with his usual mix of fear and awe. Mrs. Pei, it was widely agreed, was not only the prettiest mother out of all the mothers they knew. She was the prettiest anyone out of all the anyones they knew. But she was direct and stern and proper in a way that insured she could take issue with anyone at any time, if there seemed some advantage in it. “Hello, Tommy,” she said. “I’m sorry to barge in here like this, but it’s a full-time job keeping up with Jalasso’s comings and going.”

Tommy smiled at the recognition from Mrs. Pei, although it was nothing new. He’d been visiting the Pei house for a couple of years, ever since he and Jalasso met at a local tennis clinic and they found they belonged to the same country club. He nodded and smiled. “Hello, Mrs. Pei. Jalasso and I were going to play for a little while.”

Mrs. Pei cocked an eyebrow in her daughter’s direction. “Oh, is that where you were headed, dear?” she asked.

Jalasso smiled weakly and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

For a moment, Jalasso was certain her mother’s eyes were drawn to the spot in the room where the Tiffany lamp had stood, but then she continued. “Do we not ask permission in this house anymore? Your father is setting a bad example with all his travels, but this is a home, not a hotel. I don’t think tennis was on your schedule for this afternoon.”

Her mother was angry about the household schedule. She tried not to look as relieved as she felt, but knew that meant she looked plenty relieved already. “I’m sorry, Mother,” she said, regaining her composure. “It wasn’t a for-sure thing. Tommy didn’t know if he’d be able to come, so I forgot to add it.”

“Well, that’s not very good planning, Jalasso. We have to have a schedule, or nothing would ever get done around here. So apologize to Tommy for your mistake, but I’m afraid you have a tea at four. You don’t have time to visit the courts right now,” her mother said. She waited for the outburst that was sure to follow and prepared to threaten the cancellation of tennis camp again. It was one of her better tools for getting Jalasso’s compliance, but of course she would lose that power if she ever exercised it. Not to mention that two weeks free of her bounding, explosive little girl beckoned to her like a distant dream.

Jalasso surprised her mother by nodding once decisively, the way she sometimes did after making a convincing backhand, and turning to her friend. “I’m sorry, Tommy. I forgot to add our game to the schedule. I can’t go play with you today. Please forgive me.”

“Sure, that’s fine,” Tommy said. He didn’t move.

“We’ll have you over another time, Tommy. Maybe you can come for a morning game next weekend and stay for lunch. We’ll check the appointment book and set something up with you parents,” Mrs. Pei said.

“Great. Thank you,” Tommy said. He still stood awkwardly next to the oversized tennis bag at his feet.

“But right now I need Jalasso to figure out what she’s going to wear to the tea party.”

Jalasso suddenly realized how guilty she and Tommy both looked, and she rushed to Tommy’s side and shook hands with him awkwardly. “So I’ll see you soon, Tommy,” she said. “And we’ll play tennis!”

A look of understanding flashed across Tommy’s face and he leaned down to grab the large tennis bag and sling it over shoulder. “Yes, tennis is good,” he said. “I mean, that’ll be good. Playing tennis.”

“Hold on, Tommy,” Mrs. Pei said, and both children froze. “I’ll have someone take that bag down for you. It looks awfully heavy.”

“No!” Jalasso said, and her mother gave her a wide-eyed look as a reprimand. “I mean, that would be nice, but …”

“It’s very nice of you, Mrs. Pei,” Tommy said, trying to pick up the bag as casually as if it didn’t have a ruined antique lamp in it. “But you know how tennis players are. Always building up our muscles.” He hoped he didn’t sound like he was flirting with Jalasso’s mother. Tommy didn’t really know much about flirting, but he was pretty sure that’s what he had been doing.

Mrs. Pei looked unsure, but she stepped out of the doorway. “Yes, I do know how you tennis players are,” she said. She watched as the boy lugged the bulky bag out the door and down the hallway toward the central house. He was a good kid, she thought, and strangely loyal to Jalasso, despite the way she bossed him around. She could only assume that’s who had convinced him to attach the glittery unicorn sticker to the outside of his tennis bag.