Tina Lincer is a writer living in Loudonville, NY.
My father, Max, a shy man known for his perpetual smile, was an auditor for New York State his whole working life. I inherited his love of numbers and head for math. Also, his hazel eyes and sweet tooth. I have his Swiss-made harmonica and his Camry sedan, the Maxmobile.
But when I think of my dad, gone now for seven years, what makes me smile most is remembering how we played together.
My father never tired of playing my favorite sidewalk game, Hit the Penny. He took me on the rides in Kiddy City, “25 acres of fun!” in the heart of Queens. In the winter, sledding on the Clearview golf course, he perched his bulky frame behind me, tucking me into safety while steering our Flexible Flyer with abandon.
I adored my father even though we didn’t talk much. In this way, he wasn’t unlike many 1950s and ’60s dads who let their wives run the household and direct their children’s day-to-day lives. My chatty mother was homework overseer and my companion in endless rounds of Scrabble, Perquackey and other word games. She instilled in me a lifelong love of language.
But no words were needed for stoopball or an after-supper catch with my dad. As long as we had a “Spaldeen,” we were set. Good for absolutely everything, that small, pink, high-bouncing rubber ball was ubiquitous on the sidewalks and in the courtyards of my childhood apartment complex.
In addition to punchball, slapball and boxball, I played handball with my best friend, Shelly, and her two brothers. My father was sometimes our fifth player. There were no rulebooks or referees, no official courts or facilities. We played against the low back wall of a set of adjoining garages in a chain-linked playground behind Shelly’s kitchen window.
Ours wasn’t traditional American handball, but a game called Down the River, also known as Chinese handball or Ace-King-Queen, in which the ball hit the ground before hitting the wall.
My father taught me some of my best moves. On the handball court, away from my mother, he was king. I was proud of the power with which he whammed the ball against the wall, of his fast reflexes and his dexterity. He was a leftie who could use both hands. And though overweight, he was surprisingly nimble, a legacy of his Brooklyn boyhood street games.
He taught me how to hit the ball against the wall on a single bounce. How to “cheap it in” with a baby shot that was impossible to return. How to aim it high or slant to keep the next person in line running. He taught me my specialty: serving up long, ground-hugging strokes. The smaller the sliver of air space between ball and ground, the more thrilling.
I always wanted to win. Losing was painful. Being out, especially in an early round, meant all you could do was sit and watch. Restless, I climbed the fence or the monkey bars or kept score from the top of the metal slide, eager for the round to be over so I could get in the game again.
Though our games were child’s play, the competition was fierce. On non-school days, my friends and I would start early in the morning and play for hours. My father joined in late in the day, when he was dispatched by my mother to find me and shoo me home home in time for dinner.
“One more game, just one more!” I cried.
“C’mon, Max!” came my playmates’ chorus.
My father was defenseless against these pleas. We wore him down, but he often beat us all, to everyone’s admiration and frustration.
One time, when I was 10 and my father was ahead in a fast, close game, he stumbled over a rough patch on the concrete and lost his footing. I watched, horrified, as he tumbled to the ground in pain, my fallen handball hero.
“Jesus,” he swore, though he was a Jew who invoked the prophet Elijah on Passover. His face was flushed and perspiring. He shook his bald head.
For weeks afterward, my father lamented his “bum foot.” He sat on the metal milk box on our stoop with the other dads, the ones who didn’t play ball. When my friends’ brothers, the default champions of the ill-fated game, came to grumble their apologies for his injury, he reminded them, “I was winning.” For years, I heard about the game that got away.
My father died at 89. He hadn’t played ball in years, not since my children were little. Carrying on family tradition, he had taught them Hit the Penny. Somehow, all seemed right with the world when Max had a ball in his hand.