Great Friday

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1.

“Good game,” Prin said.

“Good game. But next time, when I call the shot—”

“I let you call the shots, Dad,” Prin said.

“Good son,” Kingsley said.

For the last three hours, he’d been playing a game of oversized ping-pong with viciously competitive old men and their flabby sons. Prin and his father were undefeated, so far, in the New Leaf Seniors Centre First Annual Father-Son Pickleball Tournament, which was sponsored by a downsizing service and a medical supplies store.

He was also starving and dizzy, and looking for a theologically respectable reason for how he was spending his Good Friday. Elsewhere, right now, Filipinos were volunteering to be nailed to crosses. Italians were dragging crosses across cobblestone. Americans were setting up thick and polished veneration crosses made of hypoallergenic wood. His wife and daughters were baking hot cross buns for the homeless. Egyptians were deciding whether to venture out. And Prin was standing in a padded-wall gymnasium in the east end of Toronto, his eyes watering from all the antiphlogistine being applied around him. Just how could he make this Friday Good again? The only noises he could hear in the room were a constant tapping—a half-dozen whiffle balls knocking against wooden paddles at long intervals—and the gasps of men in sudden pain, stretching and lunging, hammering shots and being hammered right back. Prin closed his eyes. This was the sound of the soldiers hammering nails into Christ’s hands and feet while hanging Him on the cross, this very day, this very day! Yes, and those gasps were the sound someone made from being hammered onto wood. And the sound of hammering someone onto wood. Because how could you do that to any man and not gasp, too?

“Prin! What the hell! You’re just standing there, dreaming,” Kingsley said.

“Sorry, Dad, it’s just that it’s Good Friday and —”

“Stop your Jimmy Swaggarting! And be more ambitious, son! If we win, this is going to be a Great Friday! Now let’s get going! I want to go see Kiwi Ken and his son on the far court. We’re playing against them in the final,” Kingsley said.

2.

Prin falls a second time.

Actually, he just slipped on his own sweat, lunging for a nasty little drop shot, but when he went down, he stayed down. Kingsley lashed at his son’s back with his racket, demanding he get up. The old man stalked off the court. Lizzie, his mother, came out of nowhere and was kneeling beside him, pressing a perfumed cloth to his face. She was wearing a T-shirt that read, “DON’T WORRY, BEYONCE.” Lizzie shoved a hunk of Snickers bar into his gasping mouth. He chewed and batted her concerned hands away from his gym shorts.

“Shhh. Eat. I know it’s Good Friday, son, and I know you’re fasting. Molly texted me that she was worried, so I came to bring you food. You didn’t pull anything, down there, did you? No one needs to know about this. Chew, chew, good boy. I told Kareem to stop filming when I came to you,” said Lizzie.

“Hey! Kingsley! Mate, get junior’s nursey mumsy off the court! Tell her she can breastfeed him during the trophy presentation. To us. It’s still our serve. 11-4. Let’s go!” said Kiwi Ken.

“Are you going to let these men speak that way, about your own mother?” Kingsley asked.

Lizzie returned to the bleachers as her ex-husband once more crowded over their fallen son. Sitting beside her was her new husband Kareem, an Ismaili Muslim grocer. He waved at Prin and continued filming everything with his phone.

“Prin! Look at me! Would Jesus let someone speak that way, about His mother? Also, you know these men are Anglicans! Anglicans are beating you, on Good Friday!” Kingsley said.

Grimacing, he got up from the lovely cool floor and faced the giant, grinning, red-faced men standing across from them. In games earlier that day, Prin had been amazed at how large and empty the other side of the pickleball court looked. But their prior opponents had been stumbling and swearing old men outfitted with elaborate back supports and shrugging middle-aged sons. Neither could retrieve the deep court lobs and simple drops and hard smashes to the side-courts that Kingsley and Prin delivered, winning game after game.

Whereas in the final, Kiwi Ken and Craig got to everything. They seemed to fill the whole world on the other side of the net with their slabby frames and endless arms and legs. They were both aging athletes—massive shoulders and thighs, industrial knee braces and sandbag waistlines that sagged heavy and hard.

Kiwi Ken pointed his racket menacingly at Kingsley.

“Still our serve. You ready.... Queensly?” he said.

His father looked so small, just then, small and defeated. He had been named for the King, not the Queen! But what could he say to that much white man, already up seven points? Prin loved his father. In spite of much, he loved him. Also, Prin suddenly had some sugar in him.

“Dad, I think the Aussie wants to know if you’re ready for his serve,” said Prin.

“Oy! What did you just call my dad?” said Kiwi Ken’s son, Craig.

“You said Oy!” said Prin.

“I meant Ay! We say Ay! New Zealanders have been saying Ay for centuries! Anyway, ay, you, five-foot-nothing four-eyes! I’ll ask you again. What did you just call my dad? How’d you like it if I called your dad a bloody—Ow!”

Kiwi Ken smacked his son with his racket.

“Careful, son. You know what they’re doing. Double standard in this country, never forget. You and I could be mistaken for used feminine papers, or even worse, for Australians, and no one would say boo. But if we say something off-color, if you know what I mean, about our colorful friends across the net, we’d be disqualified from this tournament and probably kicked out of the country,” said Kiwi Ken.

He glared over at Kingsley.

“Am I right…Qu-Queensly? Shall we proceed? 11-4, four points to the championship. And aren’t I telling the truth?” he asked.

“What is truth?” asked Kingsley.

His face was lit up like he’d just discovered a Holy Grail filled with lottery tickets.

“Yes, let’s keep playing. Please put another shrimp on the barbee, Crocodile Ken Dundee,” said Kingsley.

Kiwi Ken’s serve went wide and out of bounds. After retrieving the ball with a new bounce in his step and then crouching to serve, Prin began singing “Tie me kangaroo down”—really only the first line, again and again, and Kingsley sort of joined in and tapped with his orthopedic running shoes and from the front row of the impromptu and extremely sparse spectator’s section, Lizzie and Kareem began to hum and mumble it too. While their own defeated sons checked their phones, the other seniors still watching joined in, a few of them clapping, thinking this was an approved activity.

Raging and red-faced, Kiwi Ken and Craig began bobbling their heads and pretending to blow each other up while crooning “Thank you, come again!” in convenience store accents after each point. Each lost point, that is. Because their effort, well, sorry mates but oy, it boomeranged. Because now Kingsley and Prin came at them again and again, darting and slamming and backhanding hard down the sidelines and clearing to the baseline before laying in feathery drops just over the net. The big men across from them lumbered and whiffed, staggered and groaned and hit wide, hit long, hit net, raged and raged and raged at their opponents’ Aussie antagonizing, and very quickly the score was tied, 12-12.

“I’m filing a complaint, Kingsley, to the management here, I’ll have you know. This is bloody bush league stuff and it may work in your Calcutta, but not in my Canada,” said Kiwi Ken.

“Son, did you hear that? Waltzing Matilda is filing a complaint!” said Kingsley.

“Crikey!” said Prin.

“Let’s hope for their sake they don’t do a background check and find out Ken’s grandparents were all convicts!” Kingsley said.

“I’M NOT A FUCKING AUSTRALIAN!”

“It’s my serve, you jailbird son of a kangaroo.”

3.

His serving arm in a sling and smiling as he hadn’t in years, with his free hand Kingsley held the victor’s trophy—Precious Moments father-and-son figurines glued onto an old oaken hockey trophy base. Kareem took pictures of him and of him with Prin, and even, once, of Kingsley and Lizzie and Prin. Kingsley thanked Lizzie for coming out to watch and also nodded, not unwarmly, at Kareem. Between pictures, Kareem said he was going to write to the Agha Khan Foundation and propose they build pickleball courts around the world.

Kingsley was very quiet, in all of this. Here he was, for once, really winning at life. All of these years of getting from Sri Lanka to Canada, and all of the struggle here, up through running the convenience store and losing his marriage and raising a son who wasn’t an actual doctor, only an English professor. And the loneliness. But today he’d defeated white giants. He’d won a pickleball trophy. He had an obedient son, a proud ex-wife, and also a Muslim man asking for his advice on convincing the Aga Khan to make pickleball a priority of the faith. The comet could hit the Earth right now, and he’d be fine. Because from existence, just then, what more could he expect, realistically? This was the Greatest Friday.

“Let’s celebrate!” said Kingsley.

“Dad, shouldn’t we take you to a walk-in clinic, just to make sure Kiwi Ken didn’t break your arm when he tackled you?” asked Prin.

“It’s just a strain. Maybe you can drive me to the restaurant and then, someone else can drive your car,” said Kingsley.

“Oh me!” said Kareem.

“And then, then others can join us for dinner, if it’s not against their religion,” said Kingsley.

“Nothing is, except hate! Islam is a—”

“Okay, okay. Just come to dinner then,” said Kingsley.

“Where should we go, Red Lobster?” asked Kareem.

“Ha! There’s only one place to celebrate this victory, right Prin?” said Kingsley.

“Where’s that, Dad?” asked Prin.

“Obvious! We’re going to Outback Steakhouse!” said Kingsley. Prin high-fived his father, who walked out of the gym humming a happy mash of “Waltzing Matilda” and “Tie Me Kangaroo Down.”

Lizzie wiped her eyes and pulled Prin close by.

“You know your father can’t tell the difference between Catholic and catnip, so don’t blame him. But son, not even Pope Francis says we can have meat on Good Friday,” Lizzie said. But other than walking around each other at buffets after baptisms and first communions, his parents hadn’t eaten together in years. Prin hadn’t eaten with his parents, together, in years. Oh his heart ached in a way he didn’t know was still possible, about his parents, for his parents, for the prospect of their being together just for an hour, never mind the new Muslim husband filming it all and his father’s continued strategic ambiguity about the Sri Lankan matchmaker websites still showing up in his browser history. Prin had to find a good reason to do this. Christ didn’t want to be nailed to the cross any more than Prin wanted to eat a well-done New York strip. But love, wasn’t this done for love? Because he simply couldn’t go to a steakhouse with his father and order the fish. It went against nature, against love.

But steak on Good Friday went against an even greater nature and love. He knew this could not compare to hiding in caves and being blown up during your baby’s baptism. But here, now, these still could be the great spiritual crises of a man’s life! Because they were. Disappoint one father and make one mother cry, or do the same to another father, another mother. He decided he would take up a cross made of charbroiled strip loins and accept a crispy crown of Bloomin Onion. Because yes we are fallen and at the same time we have been redeemed. It was three o’clock on Good Friday but it was already Easter Sunday, always.

Published in the March 23, 2018 issue: 
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Randy Boyagoda is a writer, critic, professor, and principal of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. His next novel, 'Original Prin,' will be published in 2018.

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