The Signature

A Short Story by Matthew H Emma

The Billie Jean King Tennis Center came into view through the window of the Seven Train.

“Willets Point’s the next stop,” shouted the conductor. “Watch your step and remember all personal belongings.”

After snaring the green folder off the seat, I checked inventory. Inside were two US Open grounds passes, a printout of Monday, August 26, 2014’s schedule of matches and a photo of the beautiful Russian tennis star, Svetlana Karlova, former Open champ. I held up the picture. My best friend and event companion, Dave, ran his right hand through a head of dirty-blonde hair and sighed.

“Look P,” he said, using a shortened version of my name Pete. “Know you want meet her, but let’s try and have fun regardless. Please.”

Dave’s words echoed, but didn’t resonate. I fixated on the photo. Today wasn’t only about backhands and volleys, but to serve an ace for a friend who yearned to, but couldn’t be here.

“She’s the first match on Court Eleven,” I babbled. “Soon as the gates open, want to race over and get seats near the gate the players enter and exit through.”

The train reached Willets Point. Dave and I hopped off and marched across the long, wooden walkway leading to our destination. I forged several paces ahead. Dave flagged me down, grasped my wrist and eyed me.

“Didn’t you listen to anything I…” he rattled.

“What?” I interrupted.

Dave flailed his arms and moved ahead.

“Forget it,” he shrieked.

Though we reached the gate at four minutes past nine, almost an hour before the compound opened, at least fifty people stood in line ahead of us. Fans spoke Russian, German, French and Spanish, as they accessed grids and circled the matches they hoped to witness. Several young children clutched humongous, green tennis balls designed to be autographed, which, in many instances, were bigger than they were. At ten minutes to ten, a heavy seat, middle aged, grey-haired man, who donned a vest which read EVENT SECURITY in black lettering inched the gate open. The two hundred or so people gathered offered thunderous applause.

“Is everybody happy?” he asked.

Only a smattering of fans responded.

“Is everybody happy?” he pondered again, in a louder voice.

“Yeah,” most everyone screamed in response this time.

Revelers preceded through the security checkpoints and raced towards the courts on which their favorite players would be competing.

“Yes,” I exclaimed when we neared Court Eleven and I noticed the stands near the gate were vacant.

Two male players I couldn’t identify practiced bare-chested to the delight of several young women, who snapped photos like Annie Liebovitz on a Vanity Fair shoot. Ten minutes later, Dave arose.

“Getting bored,” he said. “Gonna check out the action. Promise to be back by eleven.”

At a quarter to, my Samsung Galaxy chimed.

“Ya at Ct 11 yet?” she asked. .

“Yep,” I answered. “Do my best to get it. How r u feeling”

“Stomach’s still bad,” she answered. “Otherwise, feeling okay and recovered from yesterday.”

“Rest up,” I concluded. “Luv Pete.”

Dave motored back at five of.

“Miss anything?” he wondered.

Before I had a chance to answer, Svetlana and her opponent, eighteen-year-old Dutch phenom, Katrina Devendorf were led to the court by security. Polite applause followed when the players removed their warm-up jerseys and took the court.

“Go Svetlana,” I shouted.

As Svetlana and Katrina exchanged several trial volleys, I snapped countless pics on both a Canon Digital and my smartphone. I emailed several to: Seconds before Svetlana served to begin the match, the phone vibrated. The text read:

“Awesome shots!”

Svetlana overpowered the up-and-comer 6-2, 6-1 in a thirty-three minute whitewash. As the victor placed her rackets away and enrobed her Adidas sweat jacket, I snared the photo and wrested a TD Bank pen from the left pocket of my white Hanes shorts. Svet broke for the exit, but as I edged towards the gate, a group of ten young girls usurped me, armed with pens and color-enhanced five by sevens’ of their own. Svet smiled, signed and posed for selfies with the kids. When the girls scurried off, Svet did as well. My first opportunity failed. Dave threw out his arms.

“Oh well,” he said. “Where to now?”

Having attended the Open for many years, I had the good fortune of meeting making the acquaintance of a number of people who worked there. Ray, a security guard, was one such individual.

“Player’s lounge area,” I replied. “Svet’ll be there and I know a guy who can get us in.”

“Really P,” Dave responded, with a hint of anger and angst. “We gonna chase her around like insane groupies all day?”

I came to a quick halt. Dave and I almost collided.

“Hey,” I said, with significant attitude. “Want to enjoy everything else as much as you, but please understand, this’s something I must try and do. The sooner I accomplish it, the more fun we can have. Okay?”

He nodded and we ambled behind a crowd until reaching a roped-off, tented area behind Louis Armstrong Stadium. Ray, a stocky thirty-two-year-old with curly brown hair and glasses scowled and placed his palms out like a school crossing guard as we neared.

“Sorry Pete,” he said.

“Don’t tell me she’s not in there,” I responded.

Ray shook his head.

“That’s not it,” he said.

When I glanced inside, Svet helped herself to a bottle of Poland Spring.

“Svetlana,” I shouted.

She glimpsed up for a second and smiled. Two seconds later, Ray dragged me away.

“Sorry again,” he said.

Ray lowered his head.

“Security regulations are crazy this year,” he muttered.

“Only for a minute,” I pleaded.

Ray leered.

“I’ll lose my job,” he said.

I punched my left palm with a right-handed fist and eyed Dave. He raised his hands up and down, in an attempt to calm me down. As I was about to march away, a man brushed by us without even excusing himself.

“Asshole,” said Dave. “Watch where you’re going.”

The man didn’t respond to Dave’s insult. However, something dropped out of his backpack. We rushed over and picked up the items, which were two media passes. I grinned.

“Don’t P,” Dave demanded. “Track him down and give ‘em back. Know how much trouble we could get in?”

As I slapped on the credential and set my foot in the direction of the Chase Media Center, I viewed Dave.

“Not going,” he declared.

He jerked back when I approached him.

“Do what you want,” he shouted, as several spectators pored over us. “Obsession’s gonna land you, not me in jail. I’m goin’ to watch tennis, you want to chase this bitch around Flushing, have fun buddy.”

Dave stormed off without glancing back. Though disappointed, I understood his feelings. That said, I had still had yet to achieve my goal. I bolted towards the press facilities, reattached the badge and approached the guarded entrance. Out emerged a tall, but thin man with short, blonde hair. The name Timothy was emblazoned into his nametag. He stepped forward.

“Please have your media credentials and admission numbers ready,” he said.

I stood fourth in line behind two men and one woman. All were equipped with items such as backpacks, camera lenses and notepads. My turn in line came. I flashed the badge and attempted to step inside fast.

“Hold up,” shouted Timothy. “Admission number please.”

“Never gave me one,” I responded and minced two more baby steps into and enjoyed the comfort of the air-conditioned building.

Timothy lurched forward and dragged me back.

“Admission number please,” he repeated, in a harsh tone.

My heart thwacked and I grew soused in cold perspiration.

“Okay clown,” he said. “Getting the cops.”

Nausea set in. I considered staging a fit of hysterics where I’d reveal why I behaved in such a stupid manner, but didn’t in fear such actions would confirm a night’s stay in either Bellvue or a jail cell. The only thought racing through my mind during those tense moments was how I’d explain this to my father when he arrived to bail me out. Seconds later, however, the negative vibes faded, as I experienced my first bit of good luck.

“Ray,” I screamed, as he pranced by.

He whirled around.

“Fuck you doing here?” he inquired.

“Don’t want to know,” I answered. “Think you could help me out?”

He released a tremendous sigh.

“What’d you do?” he asked, in a resigned voice.

I tossed him the press pass. He glared.

“They could arrest you for that,” he confirmed.

“So I’ve learned,” I responded. “Begging you. Tell them you know me and I’m obsessed with Svetlana and got carried away or something. Please.”

He blew by me and stormed towards the entrance.

“Don’t move,” he ordered, as he glanced back.

A few Hail Mary’s were uttered while I witnessed Ray confer with two of New York’s finest. Five minutes afterwards, he slogged out and towards me. My entire body shuddered to where standing was a chore.

“Get up and out of here,” he said. “Not getting arrested. Yet. So, either go to some matches or home. Anymore bullshit, you’ll need someone much more influential than me to call for assistance. Okay?”

“Thanks,” I said, as I placed my hands together and expelled a burst of air long, which was hard and long enough to lower the surrounding air temperature a few degrees.

Ray marched away.

“Owe you a six pack of Bud,” I yelled.

“More like an eighteen pack of Heineken,” he retorted, without glimpsing back.

After enjoying a quick giggle at Ray’s quip, reality sobered me. I’d failed to obtain the signature. As I grabbed my mobile, my eyes welled.

“Hey,” I said to Dave. “Where’re u? At fountains. Meet me there when you can.”

Less than ten minutes hence, Dave staggered towards me holding a foot long, plastic cup almost void of Heineken.

“At least you had a good time,” I said, as he descended to the ground adjacent to me.

“Take it ya didn’t get it,” he said.

“Nah,” I said.

Dave play punched my right shoulder.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Wasn’t even for me,” I said, as I watched Yanella Wechsler, one of my favorite players, be escorted to her match.

Dave shrugged his shoulders. I didn’t inform him about the actual reason for this Odyssey.

“Tell you some other time,” I answered. “Too upset to now.”

Static and screeching came across the public address system, followed by several seconds of silence. People halted in anticipation of the message about to be broadcast.

“Good afternoon tennis fans,” shrieked a deep male voice. “As a reminder, Russian star Svetlana Karlova will be holding a meet and greet with fans from two to three-thirty at the Esurance booth.”

I leaped up, clapped and spun around like a break dancer.

“Yes,” I shouted. “Thank you Lord.”

“Must really like here?” asked an attractive young brunette speaking in what sounded like a French accent.

“Have no idea,” I responded, as I tried to spot Dave, who’d already disappeared into the crowd.

“Dave? Dave?” I yelled.

Seconds later, my phone chimed.

“In line leading up to Esurance booth,” he said, as I raced over, located and joined him in line.

At minimum, one hundred people stood in front of us.

“How the hell’d everyone get here so fast?” I inquired.

“Just announced it five minutes ago.”

Some guy about ten paces ahead whirled around.

“Was in today’s game program,” he said.

Dave and I eyed each other.

“Guess that explains it,” I said.

Svet entered the booth at a minute prior to two. The procession started. By half-past two, only a small percentage of the line dissipated. At a quarter after three, there were still twenty people leading us. The clock struck three-thirty when Svet arose and Esurance staff cornered off the booth.

“No,” I screeched. “Don’t do this. Please.”

Dave attempted to grab my arm, but I eluded his grip and darted towards Svet.

“Svetlana,” I said, drenched in sweat and short of breath. “Would you sign this photo please?”

Svet leered. Dave caught up.

“Would you mind?” Dave asked Svet. “He’s been trying all day.”

Svet continued to stare.

“Not for me,” my fracture voice muttered. “For a friend.”

Tears skied down my face. Everyone witnessing the scene stood straight and observed. Svet waved us forward.

“Five minutes,” she said. “Come with me.”

Dave and I trailed to a green bench not far from the fountains. Svet plopped down and placed her hands out.

“So?” she asked.

My extremities trembled, as I presented her the photo and my TD Bank pen.

“Th…Th…This’s for me friend Amy,” I stammered. “You’re her favorite player.”

A sense of calm I’d never experienced overtook me when I watched Svet affix her name to the picture. Without warning, I bawled.

“This’s the first year we didn’t attend the Open together,” I cried on. “She’s got cancer and is going through chemo.”

Dave slinked to the ground and positioned both hands over his mouth. A single tear streaked down Svet’s right cheek. She motioned for me to join her on the bench, which I did.

“Thank you so much,” I said.

Svet and I embraced. She then reached into her racket bag, accessed a small towel and wiped her eyes.

“Got your phone?” Svet asked.

I handed it to her.

“Why?” I wondered.
Svet accessed my contacts list and scrolled down to the heading: “Amy’s Cell.”

“May I at least give her the heads up?” I asked.

Svet gave the phone back to me. It rang twice.

“Hey,” Amy said. “Having a good time?”

“Yep,” I answered, almost unable to speak. “Got someone who wants to speak with you.”

My shuddering hands almost dropped the phone when I clicked the speaker icon and flipped it back to Svet.

“Amy,” Svet said, in a broken English. “It’s Svetlana Karlova.”

Ten seconds of silence followed. I prayed the excitement didn’t upset Amy.

“Oh my God,” Amy said, stressing every word. “Love you so much.”

Svet’s tears reappeared, as did mine.

“Hope you’re doing okay,” she said. “You’ve got a wonderful friend in?”

Svet faced me.

“Pete,” I confirmed.

“Pete,” Svet repeated.

“Yeah,” Amy responded. “He’s special. Thanks Svetlana. You and this moment are so special to me.”

“Anytime,” she said and ended the call.

I reclaimed the phone.

“Thanks for everything,” I said. “You’ll never see me again.”

Svet rose.

“That’s too bad,” she said. “Cause I wanted to invite you guys to dinner with me in the city later. That was the nicest thing I’ve seen anybody do in a long time. Meet me back here at five-thirty.”

Dave I viewed each other with wide smiles.

“Sounds good,” I said.

Svet scampered off.

“Well, now what?” wondered Dave. “Only four. Got another hour and a half.”

“Let’s watch some more tennis,” I said. “I’m free now.”