The worst thing about Odette’s serve (she preferred the “poop” and “boomerang” service styles) was that it was criminally inaccurate. The best thing about it was its unpredictability that always kept her opponents wondering where exactly the ball was headed. An effectively wild tool. Something just a bit more chaotic would be wholly uncontrollable. Like a rioting mass hellbent on royal blood.
Tennis in the French summer of 1789 was mostly abysmal, worsened by the declining popularity of the sport, and further compounded by the fact that Odette always lost to Marine. A set of outcomes without a random element. Perfectly forecastable. She was indeed that bad. It didn’t help that tennis was played in exothermic dresses, immobile high heels, and asphyxiating corsets (because one must always keep up appearances). It also didn’t help that no matter how hard she tried, Odette never really felt like she was enjoying herself. A repeated and repeatable task dispossessed of any former jouissance.
And even so, Odette trudged on, meeting her nemesis-friend every afternoon that spring and summer. And with every passing volley and each errant serve, she did get better, haphazardly lucking into winning a game every now and then. And one occasion, Odette even took two games in a set. But this was real tennis, and it was as unforgiving as the guillotine. It corrected any aberrations swiftly and justly.
On this particular June day, Odette, for the first time in a long time, actually had a deep desire and readiness to play. The air was warm but not hot, and the sun was hidden behind driftless clouds. It was a great day for a change of course, a new attitude, a revolution. The match began promisingly for Odette: she broke Marine’s first two service games and held a 3-0 lead. As Odette sat down for a break, the wind blew briskly in through the windows, mixing the stale air that had settled in the tennis court building that morning.
Suddenly, there was a commotion on the courts at the south end of the complex. Someone called loudly to an assembling group, directing the rapidly forming semicircle to please keep it down so that everyone could hear. But Odette had no time to pay attention. There was a (small) chance for victory, and it had to be grasped. The prolonged struggle over the previous months might now be materializing into some kind of positive, nearly tangible result. Odette held on tightly to a 4 games to 3 lead.
The courts in Versailles were not overly conducive to large gatherings. The sound tended to echo off the walls with alarming amplitude. And more and more people were starting to pour into the building. But Odette focused on the tennis. Now up 5-4 and serving for the set.
Someone was shouting polemics into and through those congregated nearby. Another person answered in affirmation. Slowly they were inching onto the very court where Odette was attempting the impossible. The whole crowd cheered as Odette fell behind 6-5.
The last chance to stave off the inevitable. Odette was serving to keep the match going. But down 30-40, and with the crowd now feverishly behind her, Odette ended the match by making an unforced error, hitting the ball too far, past the endline: “Fuck.”
Jonathon McMullen lives in Mobile, AL with his wife, two cats, and three chickens. He has only recently started writing after joining a writing group in South Korea when he was there last year.