A Bird Out of Hand
"We'll play my way," she insisted—then learned that love, like badminton, has but one set of rules
TERRY shifted uneasily on the sofa while he waited for his wife to come-down.
It was strange, he reflected, that a man his size should sink to a state approximating terror at the thought of telling a one-hundred-and-twenty-pound girl to do something she should have had sense enough to do without being told.
At the sound of footsteps descending the stairs, he sat rigid, waiting. When Nikki entered the living room he jumped up, faced her, and spoke with the unwilling abruptness of a man plunging into a pool of ice water.
“If you leave this house tonight, I won’t be here when you get back.”
Terry, hearing his own words, had the uncomfortable feeling that they sounded like a line of script from a cheap melodrama.
Nikki’s cool green eyes passed slowly .over his sixfoot-three—the corn-colored hair, thinning a little, the cherubic pink-and-white face with itsjnild blue eyes, the broad, heavy shoulders.
“You know, darling,” she said, smiling faintly, “when you try to be masterful, you’re positively cute.”
Terry shook an accusing finger at her. It was big, but a little too much on the chubby side to be impressive.
“If you call me ‘cute’ once more,” he exploded, “I’ll—”
“What?” Nikki asked, with composure. She walked to the hall mirror, smoothed a crest of copper-colored hair, and pulled a jaunty little hat with a green feather in it rakishly over one eye. “I hate to leave you here alone, all two hundred and twenty-five pounds of you,” she said, turning back a pert, snub-nosed face to Terry. “But, after all, the tournament’s this week end, and if I’m going to do any good, I have to work on my game.”
Terry’s face puckered with exasperation. “You’re not supposed to work at badminton,” he declared bitterly. “It’s a sport—you play it for fun, and because the people who play it are good company —it’s—”
“I know, I know,” Nikki interrupted. “I’ve heard all that before. So you play it your way, and I’ll play it my way.” She stood with one hand on the door knob. “Incidentally,” she said. “I’ve asked Roger to stay with us while the tournament’s on.”
Terry could feel splinters of ice tingling through his cheeks. He walked toward her slowly.
“Now you listen,” he said, forgetting to notice how the words sounded. “For the last three months you’ve been spending more time with that guy Thorp than you have with me. Maybe you’re
playing badminton, but they’re plenty of people around town who don’t think so.”
Nikki turned. “And what do you think?” she said evenly.
Terry could feel himself beginning to waver. “I don’t know what to think,” he said tensely. “But I do know this—if you bring that unctuous squirt into this house, I’ll throw him right out on his head.”
A tinge of red showed under Nikki’s transparent skin, and Terry could see little green and yellow lights beginning to flicker somewhere in the depths of her defiant eyes.
“In that case,” she said with menacing calm, “he’ll spend the week end at my father’s house, and so will I—only I won’t be back when the week end’s over.”
The sound of the door slamming behind her gave a deadly finality to her words.
Terry stood staring at the white panel while he listened to her heels clicking down the walk to the drive. It was a determined, uncompromising sound. He turned back into the hall and sank heavily into a little telephone chair. He felt miserable, helpless, completely alone.
Maybe the talk that had been going around town was true. If Nikki spent the week end at her father’s with Roger Thorp, it might well be the beginning of the end. Roger was young. He was good-looking. And Nikki was a woman—a very independent
woman, and one who was thoroughly annoyed with her husband.
The thought of losing her made Terry flinch from something that was sharper than pain. He pressed a moist palm through his thinning hair. He had to stop her. And the only person who stood a chance of helping him was Nikki’s father. He had to get hold of Mr. McCarthy before Nikki did. His father-in-law was a creature of impulse, and very likely to defend to the hilt whoever got to him first.
Mr. McCarthy himself answered the telephone. Terry, his voice husky, the words coming with effort, told him what had happened.
“So please come right away, Pop,” he concluded. “You’ve got to help me, and you have to do it right now.”
At once his confidence in the wisdom of his first move began to sag. Mr. McCarthy was a promoter, a man of ruthless stamina and unbounded imagination. He was like an avalanche—once set in motion nothing could stop him, but you never knew just what direction that first little stone of an idea might take, and by the time you had found out, the slide was on and you were being carried along with it.
AT LAST he heard the doorbell. By the time he had the door wide open, Mr. McCarthy was in the hall and heading for the living room.
He was a small, heavy-set man with a full but
amazingly mobile face. He flung h's coat in a chair and turned on Terry. “Now what’s all this nonsense?” he said impatiently.
“It’s just what I told you, and it isn’t nonsense,” Terry said unhappily.
Mr. McCarthy shot him an incredulous glance. “Now look,” he said. “I’ve met this Roger Thorp. You can’t tell me Nikki would walk out on you for a dope like that.”
“Maybe she wouldn’t,” Terry said. “But she already has.” He stared abstractedly across the room. “If I only thought she’d come back after the week end,” he said disconsolately, “I could probably take it; but after all I’m thirty-five and sort of easygoing. This guy Roger’s about twenty and, well, you know how women are.”
Mr. McCarthy studied him reflectively for several seconds. “Well,” he said, “what are you going to do about it?”
Terry’s big shoulders moved in a vague gesture of futility. “I suppose I ought to get tough with her, but somehow I just can’t. I can get the words out, but there just isn’t anything behind them.” He shot Mr. McCarthy a hopeful glance. “You can do more with Nikki than anyone,” he said. “Maybe if you’d talked to her you could get things worked out.”
Mr. McCarthy’s lips pressed together. He breathed in slowly, his chest expanding. Suddenly
his mouth popped open and a blast of words peppered Terry like buckshot.
“Talk to her! I spent the best two years cf my life trying to talk her out of marrying you. Talking doesn’t get you anywhere. It takes action—plenty of action.”
“But what can I do?” Terry asked helplessly. Mr. McCarthy leaned close to him, seized him by the lapels.
“What can you do?” he echoed. “Why you can play badminton—that’s what you can do. You know more about the game than that guy Thorp will ever know, and you’re going into that tournament and take those two punks over if I have to hop on your back and jockey you around the court.
Terry drew back bewildered. “But Pop,” he appealed, “I can’t keep up with that kid. Badminton’s a game for the wicked, I tell you. There’s no rest in it. You’ve got to be several places at once without leaving the spot you started from.” Mr. McCarthy waved his protest aside with an impatient gesture. “The answer to that,” he said, “is to find a girl who can play rings around Nikki.” “That wouldn’t help any,” Terry told him. “Women don’t do anything in mixed doubles but stand at the net and knock off the drop shots and flukes. The men stay back and do all the work.” Mr. McCarthy turned on him scornfully. “The only trouble with you,” he snapped, “is you’re lazy. If you could spend those Saturday afternoons
at college carrying twohundred - pound tacklers around like they were standard equipment, you certainly ought to have enough steam to knock a clump of feathers around with a catgut fly swatter!”
“Sure,” Terry said, “but football was different. By the time the coach had whipped a fight talk into you, and the band had knocked out a couple of marching songs, and the cheering section was cutting loose, you were so steamed up you could’ve carried the whole student body around on your shoulders.”
A strange, disquieting expression stole slowly across Mr. McCarthy’s face.
“I’ve got it—I’ve got it!” he shouted excitedly. “A coach! That’s what you needa coach !” Terry braced himself for what he knew must come. “Somebody to give you a fight talk. Someone with ideas, who can think for you. And I’m just the man who can do it. Why, before I’m through with you, you’ll be knocking birds around that guy’s head so fast he’ll think lie’s flushed a covey of quail !”
“Wait a minute! Stop!” Terry shouted, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. “If you think I’m going through with some half - baked scheme of yours, you’re crazy. I refuse.”
Mr. McCarthy’s features set in lines of stony determination. “Look here,” he said curtly, “do you w-ant this girl backor don’t you?”
“Want her back?” Terry echoed, his voice rising with urgency. “Why—why, listen Pop, if I don’t get her
Mr. McCarthy cut him short. “All right then, are you with me, or am I against you?”
The thought of losing Pop’s allegiance filled Terry with a suffocating desperation. “I’m with you, of course, Pop,” he said, making a piteous attempt to sound enthusiastic.
Mr. McCarthy closed the deal with a businesslike jerk of his head. “Okay,” he said. “From here in I’m your coach and what I say goes.”
Terry nodded helplessly. “All right. What do you want me to do?”
Mr. McCarthy rubbed his hands briskly together and smiled confidently.
“Just get in plenty of badminton the next three days, and be at the gym by eight o’clock Friday night.” He picked up his hat and coat. “I’m leaving town right now.”
“But where are you going?”
Mr. McCarthy thrust an arm hurriedly through his right coat sleeve. “I’m going to find you a partner,” he said.
He hurried out the front door, slamming it hard behind him.
“Badminton,” Terry muttered to himself. “As if I could get her back playing badminton.” But during the three days that followed he did play badminton—more of it than he had for months. Not that he believed Mr. McCarthy’s scheme
Continued on page 82
A Bird Out of Hand
Continued from page 15—Starts on page If
could possibly accomplish anything; but the cyclonic little man was the only person who stood a chance of handling Nikki, and no sacrifice was too great to keep him pacified.
The morning after their quarrel Nikki had moved to her father’s. Terry had telephoned her twice and later had gone to the house. But she wouldn’t see him. That evening as he’d walked along the street on his way to dinner, Nikki and Roger had passed in a car. Roger was at the wheel and Nikki seemed to be pressed close beside him. In the noisy restaurant, Terry could only stare at the food in front of him while the picture of them close together ran through his brain with the shatter-
ing monotony of a cracked record.
It was still vivid in his mind on Friday night. He sat alone in the bleachers of the Westburn High School gymnasium, his pachyderm hulk straining the seams of a grey pull-over and white cotton shorts.
The first evening of play in the District Open was drawing to a close. On the shining hardwood floor, four badminton courts had been marked off in thin black lines. Each court was bisected by a high, narrow net, and between them standards of powerful bulbs covered with rectangular gauze shades diffused an even glow of light.
At the far end of the gymnasium the crowd was clustered around the number one court where the last
game of the women’s doubles was being played.
Terry ran his fingers along the stemlike throat of a badminton bat still in its press. Mr. McCarthy hadn’t showed up yet, but earlier that afternoon, in response to a telegram signed “Coach,” Terry had entered the tournament with a Miss Babe Hackett from Toronto.
He shifted his position on the hard strip of board and glanced furtively toward the crowd at the other end of the gymnasium. His worried eyes sought out Nikki, but not finding her, came back to gaze despondently at his crepe-soled sneakers.
The sound of applause made him look up. Turning he saw the women in the doubles match walk to the net, shake hands, and leave the court. His apprehension began to slacken for the first time. The mixed doubles were next, and Mr. McCarthy with his female find were apparently still on the road from Toronto.
Bert Winston, who was running the tournament, stepped onto the first court.
“The first mixed doubles match,” he announced, “will be in this court, between Nikki Haines and Roger Thorp of this city, and Terry Haines and Miss Hackett—of Toronto.”
Terry got up and started toward the referee’s stand, feeling strangely lighthearted at the thought of escaping the match without arousing his father-in-law’s ire. The sound of shuffling footsteps outside the main entrance of the gymnasium, made him glance back.
There was a rattling of snare drums, a crash of cymbals, and the Westburn High School Band came pouring through the opening four abreast, with trumpets blatting, tubas grunting, and clarinets and flutes whinnying a shrill obbligato to a savage rendition of what was meant to be a rousing marching song.
Terry gaped in open-mouthed amazement as two cheer leaders and a section of about fifty students paraded by. Bringing up the rear came Mr. McCarthy attired in a sweat shirt, grey slacks and sneakers. Beside him strode a tall girl wearing a camel’s hair coat and carrying a brace of badminton bats.
The marching song reached a crashing finish, and the band scrambled into the bleachers. A tumult of applause rose from the delighted spectators. The girl disappeared in the direction of the women’s dressing room.
Terry wanted to crawl under the bleachers and lie face down on the floor. But the sight of Mr. McCarthy bearing down on him rivetted him to the spot.
“How’s that for a slice of the old spirit!” he exclaimed, giving Terry an enthusiastic slap on the shoulders.
Terry sank heavily onto the bleachers, groaning quietly. “Oh Pop,” he appealed miserably, “how could you do it?”
Mr. McCarthy’s face became suddenly stern. “Now look here,” he snapped. “I’ve been through enough trouble, whipping this thing into shape, without having you go temperamental.”
“I’m not temperamental,” Terry said, “but I don’t enjoy having you
make a fool out of me, especially when it won’t do any good.”
“Do any good!” Mr. McCarthy echoed indignantly. “I suppose winning this match isn’t good enough for you now.”
“We don’t stand a chance,” Terry said.
“Listen,” Mr. McCarthy said, “that girl, Babe, gets around the court like a hummingbird.”
“But she’ll be at the net,” Terry protested.
“Oh no she won’t,” Mr. McCarthy stated.
Mr. McCarthy folded his armj across his chest and smiled omnisciently. “ You'll be at the net,” he said triumphantly. “And when you’ve cleaned up, don’t try to take credit for the idea—it’s mine.”
Terry gaped at him. “You—you mean me at the net?” he stammered incredulously.
“That’s exactly what I mean. You said you couldn’t cover the court, so I found a girl who could. All you have to do is stand at the net, or sit there in a rocking chair, for that matter.”
“But they’ll be kidding me for the rest of my life. I’ll never be able to live it down. I can’t—”
Mr. McCarthy cut him short.
“Quit your bellyaching,” he snapped. “Here’s Babe. They’re ready to start. Come on !”
TERRY saw Nikki and Roger Thorp approaching the court from the other side of the gymnasium. Nikki, looking very trim in her crisp white shorts and jacket, swung a bat casually as she walked along. Her movements were easy and perfectly co-ordinated, yet there was a briskness about them that gave the impression of great determination.
Terry, watching her, felt more muscle-bound and ponderous than ever. He kept looking at her until her steady, impersonal gaze forced his eyes away.
The band broke into a rousing number, and the crowd began to yell for action. Out of the corner of his eye, Terry could see Nikki stiffen with annoyance.
“Here he is, Miss Hackett,” Mr. McCarthy said, shoving Terry toward the girl.
She shook his hand briskly, and a fleeting smile softened the contours of her angular features. “Glad to know you, Haines,” she said. “Do you think we can handle those two?” “I don’t know,” Terry said weakly. He shot her an appealing glance. “But don’t you think it might be better if you played net?” he asked almost fervently.
Miss Hackett brushed the idea aside with a terse gesture. “I can handle the back court,” she assured him. “All you have to do is knock off the drop shots and keep out of the way.” She stepped onto the court. “Let’s go,” she said.
At a signal from Mr. McCarthy, the cheering section cut loose with a Terry locomotive. Slowly, almost painfully, Terry took his bat out of its press. For a moment he stood watching the smiling, expectant faces. Then he felt the sharp grip of a hand on each of his arms and Mr. McCarthy was whispering fiercely, “If
you ever expect to see Nikki again, you’d better get in there and fight like you never fought before.”
Terry sighed quietly, clenched his teeth and stepped onto the court. With wooden tenacity he went through the warm-up, the toss, the serve. Then the bird was in play and he was forcing his unwilling hulk to the net to stand there flat-footed, while he ran the gauntlet of Nikki’s contemptuous glance, Roger Thorp’s disdainful smile, and the bantering wisecracks of the spectators.
Shame, anger, and despair paralyzed Terry. He stood at the net while the game raged around him. He couldn’t even keep out of the way, and twice they lost points when Miss Hackett’s smashes bounced harmlessly off his hack.
The first game went to Roger and Nikki, fifteen to three. While they changed courts for the second game, the hand played with less spirit and the rooters cheered half-heartedly.
Mr. McCarthy stood at the end of the court pleading, threatening, exhorting. Terry didn’t even look at him. His only thought was to get through the second game as fast as he could, and get out.
He glanced toward Nikki and Roger Thorp who were walking around the other end of the net. When they got to the centre of the court he saw Roger put his arm around Nikki’s shoulder, lean close to her and whisper something. He heard Roger laugh and saw Nikki smile and nod her head disdainfully.
Terry felt as if someone had touched off an acetylene torch inside his chest and the flame was shooting up through his throat. He clenched his bat until the grip was dented with finger marks.
Wheeling on Miss Hackett, he said tersely, ‘‘From here in, you’ll play net!”
She stared at him. ‘‘You mean you want me to play net?”
‘‘All I want you to do,” Terry told her, ‘‘is keep out of the way—because if this bird ever hits you, it’ll go right through you.” He motioned her to the receiving position and stood waiting grimly.
Nikki served to Miss Hackett and the game was on. For the first time in his life Terry played badminton for blood. At thirty-five, and weighing around two-thirty, he wasn’t exactly nimble. But he had beautiful control of the bird. His deception was clever, and above all he had the ability to anticipate his opponent’s moves.
He was in every play, after the bird like a falcon, his big arm whipping the thin bat through explosive smashes; his wrist cocking menacingly, only to flick tantalizing drop shots just over the net; his powerful shoulders recoiling with catapult force to hammer out clears that went up like skyrockets.
Terry scored ten points before they could break through his serve. Although in the last three points of the game Nikki and Roger recovered themselves enough to offer some real opposition, they lost, fifteen to nothing.
With the games tied at one all, the band blared furiously and the rooters cheered themselves hoarse as the players changed courts for the play-
off. The crowd, no longer casual and lighthearted, applauded wildly
When Terry, still breathing heavily and glistening with sweat, stepped into the serving position, he became the focus of two hundred and fifty pairs of intent, immobile eyes. An electric silence filled the gymnasium.
During the play that followed, as Nikki and Roger fought viciously point for point, the silence stretched like a thick, black rubber band. Through each rally, its taut surface was drawn thinner with every twang of cork on gut until it broke with a burst of applause.
With Terry and his partner leading thirteen to twelve, Roger was sucked into the net on a drop shot. Miss Hackett cleared well over his head, and in trying to get back fast for a save, Roger was off balance when he hit the return.
The tuft of feathers floated into perfect position mid-court. Terry stepped in and smashed. The bird steamed across the net like a meteor, and before Nikki could duck or get her bat up, it smacked her between the eyes and dropped gently to the floor.
Roger came up and glared at her. ‘‘If you can’t get them back,” he snapped, ‘‘at least keep out of the way!”
Nikki didn’t say anything. But when Terry went to serve he could see her at the net, looking hurt and pathetic, like a child who had been slapped for • something it couldn’t help.
The sight of that irrepressible Irish face, heavy with a wooden dejection, went through Terry like an X-ray. The steel core of his determination melted into something big and formless and tender. He stood there, knowing only that he loved her too much, and that he did not want to stop loving her that way.
He served half-heartedly and the bird dropped in the alley for a fault, losing them the serve and reversing the score to twelve-fourteen.
THE CROWD cheered excitedly as the serve went to Nikki. She straightened the feathers nervously, held the bird in position and brought her bat back carefully. In her anxiety to avoid an error she became overcautious. The cork hit the tape and bounced back.
Roger snatched the bird from the floor and stalked angrily to the base line for his serve. As he passed Nikki, he cut at her with a barrage of short, stinging words.
She flushed deeply. When she came to the net, Terry could see that her lips were trembling, and her eyes were beginning to glisten with tears. His desire to win was swept away by an overpowering flood of anger and pity.
When Roger served, Terry returned what might have been a drop shot, except that it was two feet above the net and right where Nikki could kill it. He watched the bird float toward her, saw her bat lift and smash, saw the bird angle sharply to the floor.
The gymnasium .echoed with applause as the score went thirteenfourteen. Terry could see the hurt look fading from Nikki’s face. Then
she was studying him with intent, questioning eyes.
She didn’t have long to wait for an answer. When the bird came his way during the rally, he offered it up on a platter, and Nikki promptly annihilated it. With the score tied, pandemonium broke loose. People screamed and stamped the floor.
Miss Hackett grabbed Terry by the arm and jerked him toward her. “What’s the matter with you?” she snapped. “Have you lost your mind?”
Terry didn’t answer her. He was watching Nikki, who stood on the other side of the net looking across at him. Her eyes were big with a searching tenderness that warmed him like a log fire.
Miss Hackett followed Terry’s gaze and her lips tightened in exasperation. “You’re not being taken in by that act, I hope,” she said acidly.
Terry’s eyes didn’t leave Nikki. “I don’t believe it is an act,” he said. His voice was low and deliberate as though he were talking to himself. “And there’s only one way to find out,” he added.
He called across to Roger. “How many points do you want?”
“One more.” With the option of three points or one, Roger tersely chose to make it game and match bird.
Miss Hackett’s fingers dug into Terry’s arm and she held his unwilling eyes in a relentless gaze.
“Listen,” she said fiercely, “I’m a woman. I know—and I’m telling you. You set up that bird once more and this match is over!”
“I still don’t believe it,” Terry said. He stepped into the receiving position and nodded. The crowd fell silent, tensing itself for match point.
Roger served. Terry had a fleeting glimpse of Nikki behind the net, still staring at him. Then his eyes were on the white ring of feather arching high above him, and just beyond it, the image of her face, eyes dark and green as shadows on a lawn, cheeks flushed, lips parted a little. He was smiling when he hit the return. The stroke was smooth and confident.
As the bird floated toward her, Nikki jerked suddenly from her trance. Her bat snapped down like a gun hammer; there was the sharp smack of gut on cork and the bird bulleted across the net to fall fair inside the alley beyond Terry’s reach, for game and match.
Terry couldn’t move. The torrent of applause seemed to be roaring inside his head. His eardrums were caught between each pair of stinging palms. He saw Miss Hackett walk to the net and shake hands with Roger. He knew that he should be going up to congratulate them too, but he couldn’t face Nikki.
He turned abruptly and left the court. Behind him, Mr. McCarthy’s curses rose above the dying volley of applause.
IN THE silence of a drab locker room he changed his clothes; then, slipping through a side entrance, he hurried around to his car. He opened the door, and paused with one foot on the running board.
Nikki was sitting in the front seat. “Hello,” she said, in a small, hopeful voice.
Terry eyed her stonily. “You’d better get back in there,” he told her. “They’re ready for your next match.”
“I’m not playing it,” she said evenly. “I’ve defaulted.”
“What do you mean?” Terry challenged.
She made a hesitant gesture of appeal. “If you’ll only get in and sit beside me,” she said, “maybe I can tell you what I mean.”
Terry slid in and sat behind the wheel, feeling awkward and selfconscious. Nikki was looking straight ahead, but out of the corner of his eye Terry could see the outline of her lips, pressed tight together, her chin quivering.
He was waiting for her to cry, knowing that if she did he’d probably crack. But she didn’t cry. Her body tensed in a final spasm of effort, then her lips parted. She breathed out slowly and in again, long and deep.
“I didn’t want to hit it at all,” she said huskily. “That last one, I mean. The first three I wasn’t sure, but then, all of a sudden, I saw how it was. And when I knew, I just wanted to throw my bat down and come over and put my arms around you and kiss you, and maybe cry a little.”
Terry could feel something warm and lovely beginning to tingle inside him.
“That’s what I wanted to do,” she was saying, “but somehow I didn’t seem to have the strength. I just stood there in a mellow haze staring across at you. The next thing I knew the bird was in play. I saw you reach for it and I knew what was coming. I hung on with everything I had, but when it came floating across, something inside me let go, and—well, you know the rest.”
She lifted her face toward Terry and looked deep into his eyes.
“When a game makes you do something like that,” she said, “it isn’t a game any longer. It’s a disease, and I’m curing it, beginning right now.”
Terry could feel himself melting toward her. Suddenly he checked himself.
“What about Roger?” he said.
A wry smile flickered across Nikki’s lips.
“Roger was just a symptom,” she said, “he goes with the disease.”
Terry’s face was pressed against hers. He could feel the tears, wet on her cheek. “Maybe now,” he said, “you can learn to play badminton for fun.”
Her head, tight against his, nodded a vague affirmative.
“Let’s,” she whispered, “go home.”
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