Tucked into a meadow surrounded by forest, the tennis court was starting to show a quarter century of soggy springs and icy winters. The net drooped, but we decided not to tighten it and risk breaking the rotten netting. Besides the droop better accommodated our rusty tennis skills.
The twelve foot tall fence around the court sagged along the north side. A tree that had fallen across it a few years before had been removed, but the stretched steel mesh retained the memory. Several young maple trees grew along the crumbling margin of the court and protruded inside the fence. Towering maples, oaks and white pines surrounded the court on three sides, lush with new foliage that whispered in the wind. Birds and squirrels chattered in the canopy. Ants paraded across the court’s puckering green surface, and a pair of small butterflies danced in a rising and falling gyre. Tasha sniffed around the perimeter of the court, her obligatory inspection as head ball girl for our sylvan Roland Garros.
We started to volley back and forth, balls collecting quickly on both sides of the net. It felt great to be hitting a tennis ball again, and – like every spring – I vowed to spend more time on the court, perennially optimistic that a solid tennis game was within my reach.
The sound of our rackets making solid contact with the fresh balls encouraged us and prompted Tasha to abandon the grasshopper she had been badgering. She headed out onto Susan’s side of the court and started to lunge at balls, attempting to catch them in her mouth. We tried to be more creative in our placement, trying simultaneously to avoid hitting her and to protect the nice new balls from her slobbery maw.
Soon enough she discovered that she could simply take her pick from the balls that were collecting beside the net, and she plunked down in the middle of the court to enjoy a new chew toy.
“Maybe we should have brought the hopper of old balls, so it wouldn’t matter if she chewed them…”
“Home run!” Susan cheered, sending a ball soaring over the fence into the woods. Excited, Tasha got up and padded over to the fence where she stood, looking for the ball in the woods.
Soon, enough balls had vanished over the fence that we headed out to see how many we could recover.
“Hey, come check out this snake!” I called out to Susan after startling a small garter snake in the tall grass near the woods.
“Tasha, come! Grab her. Don’t let her get close to it!” Susan’s words came like machine gun fire as she sprinted toward me. “It might be poisonous!”
“It’s just a garter snake,” I said. “Tasha’s fine.”
“Are you sure it’s not a rattlesnake? Where is it?” she asked, next to us now, grabbing Tasha by the collar and pulling her backward, away from the grass where the snake had already vanished.
“Gone? Where? Why didn’t you keep your eye on it?” Susan hustled Tasha back toward the tennis court.
“Relax. It was a garter snake, Susan. It’s harmless. Nothing to worry about.”
“How do you know? What if you’re wrong?”
When I returned from the woods with most of the balls, Susan had our tennis rackets tucked under her arm. Tasha was leashed.
“I’m ready to go,” Susan said.
“Because of the snake?”
“No. I’m just ready. I’ve played enough tennis.”
Susan asked me to walk ahead, checking for snakes. I laughed, then obliged, walking a few paces with exaggerated caution.
“Stop!” I bellowed, freezing and pointing into the grass ahead. “I think I see one…”
“That’s not funny,” said, repressing a smile.
“Wait, do you hear that rattling noise?”
Susan laughed. Tasha pulled at her leash, excited, ready to help me search for snakes.
“Well, you never know,” Susan said. “Tasha’s a city dog. She might try to attack a rattlesnake.”
“Because that’s what city dogs do?” I laughed.
Tasha, our twelve year old Labrador Retriever, enjoyed bark at wildlife, maybe even an abbreviated mock charge in the case of deer, but she had little interest in tangling with animals, birds or snakes. Frogs intrigued her more, briefly, until she realized they were not toys. A sleepy cluster fly could entertain her for five or ten minutes. But Tasha would leave rattlesnake attacking to younger, more aggressive beasts.