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The International Writers Magazine: Life Check

After the Surgery
• Martin Green
It was my first day home after knee replacement surgery.  Although the procedure had become routine, especially for old guys like me whose joints were wearing out, it still was, as my doctor reminded me, major surgery.    With the way I was feeling, I believed him. My new knee, the right, or operative, one (I’m right-handed), was still hurting, as was just about every other part of my body.   

That morning, after what seemed like an eternity, I’d finally been discharged, or freed, from the hospital.  I was wheeled out, then grabbed onto the walker I’d been given, then somehow slid into the passenger seat of my wife Sally’s car.  When we arrived home, in the Northern California retirement community where we’d become long-term residents, I used the walker to hobble up to the front door, then over the one step and inside.  By this time I was exhausted.  I went straight to the bedroom and, with Sally’s assistance, got into pajamas, then collapsed into bed.  I took a couple of the painkiller pills I’d been given at the hospital and dozed off.   I don’t remember much else that happened except that I felt terrible.

The knee I’d had replaced had a history.  I’m a New Yorker, had grown up in the Bronx.  The street and sometimes the schoolyard were our playing fields.  I was small for my age, not fast and wore glasses; still, I wasn’t too bad at the street games---slug ball, curves, off-the-point, stoop ball---that we played.  Then, in fourth grade or so, I got into a game of handball in the schoolyard and discovered I was good at it.    By sixth grade, I could beat everyone in the schoolyard so I started going to Crotona Park, 20 blocks or so away, the handball center of the South Bronx.  By the time I was in high school I was going to the MacCombs Dam courts, where all the top players in the Bronx played.   I fell into playing with some older guys, as I thought of them then, probably in their twenties, maybe even early thirties, Slim, Eddie Lemon and Big Gene---who were good, almost as good as the money players who played there every weekend.   

My high school started a handball team and I became its captain.  We played at MacCombs Dam so the guys, handball fans, I guess you’d call them, who congregated there got to know me and some said I was going to join the money players someday.  Then, playing on a damp court after a shower one summer day, I dislocated my right knee.  As anyone who’s had a knee injury knows, once you’ve had one your knee is never quite the same again.  When, years later, I moved to California I took up tennis, which had become all the rage in the 1970’s, and this put more pressure on my knee.  I quit playing tennis when I was 75, thinking to avoid the knee and hip replacements other players I knew were having.  Too late; a few years later, all the handball and tennis caught up with me.

Somehow the first day at home passed.  I watched television without actually knowing what I was seeing.  My wife hovered over me, bringing me water and cold cloths for my head.  I didn’t eat anything; I had no appetite.  Finally, night came.  I took some more painkillers and also a couple of the sleeping pills I’d been using and I was out of it.

I was in bright sunshine.  For a moment I couldn’t see and didn’t know where I was.  I blinked and then saw I was at the MacCombs Dam handball courts.  Of course.  It was summer.  I was in my shorts and a tee shirt and the sneakers with rubber soles made from old tires which I always wore to the courts.    Instinctively, I looked at my right knee.  It looked okay.  I knew this wasn’t real.  I was dreaming.  Or else it was a hallucination.  The warning on the painkiller pill bottle said one of the possible side-effects, among a number of horrible things, up to and including death, I think, was having hallucinations.  I was putting on my handball gloves, using rubber bands to keep them from sliding.   “Come on, kid, let’s get the game on.”   It was my partner, Slim.   We were playing Eddie Lemon and Big Gene.   I stepped onto the court and flexed my right leg.   The knee felt okay.

A black curtain fell and the sunshine was gone.  I shook my head.  I was awake.  I was in my bed.  My wife was beside me, breathing softly.  I heard a siren from outside, probably an ambulance going to some other poor soul in our retirement community.  I became aware that my right knee was hurting.  I turned on the small flashlight I’d put on my bedside table and took two pain pills.  I lay back in bed and stared out into the darkness.  After dislocating my knee, I never really got back into handball.   My best serve was to my left with a hook so that the opposing player either couldn’t return it or, if he did, he was way out of the court so that I could easily put the ball away.   This serve put a lot of pressure on my right knee, was probably the reason it became dislocated, and I didn’t trust my knee enough to keep on doing it.    Without that serve, I knew my game wouldn’t be good enough to compete with the money players.   

Besides that, other things intervened after that summer.  I met a girl, then I went to college, outside of New York.  After graduation, I put in my two years in the Army, then I moved to California.  I lost touch with MacCombs Dam.  Now I thought of the money players there.  I wondered if any of them was still around.  Probably not.  I thought of  Slim, Eddie Lemon and Big Gene.  I doubted if they were still around either.  I thought of those weekends when I’d take the streetcar to MacCombs Dam, play in the morning, then go to a deli and have lunch,  two hot dogs and a soda for a quarter.  Then I’d go back to the courts, watch the money games, then play a few more games myself.   It had been a pretty good time.

© Martin Green 1 Jan 2015

Martin Green

We did sometimes play stickball when we could get hold of a broom handle and when the older guys weren’t playing.
Martin Green

Max Birnbaum had come over for one of our occasional games of chess, more of an excuse to discuss the sad state of the world and to reminisce about our early days in New York.

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