Racquetball with Barbara

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(HOST) Former First Lady Barbara Bush’s recent visit to Vermont in behalf of Republican hopeful Martha Rainville inspired one of commentator Philip Baruth’s occasional flights of fancy – one in which he imagines a truly epic game of racquetball.

(BARUTH) When I first got the word that former First Lady Barbara Bush was flying into Burlington for a fundraiser, I got this serious cold shiver right down the track of my spine. Not because of her politics, really.

No, I got the willies because Mrs. Bush was flying in on a Wednesday. And Wednesday’s my racquetball day.

Now, very few Americans know that Barbara Bush plays competitive level racquetball. While she was in the White House, this little factoid clashed with her grandmotherly image, and so she played almost exclusively in a custom-built court beneath the Rose Garden. But she’s very competitive in her style of play, very in-your-face. And so occasionally, when she’s out on the road, she drops in unannounced at universities and health clubs around the nation, looking for someone with serious game.

As for me, I’m no Sudsy Monchik — five-time World Champion — but I can hold my own.

Anyway, I’m just about to wrap up a match against my regular partner Bob, and there’s a knock on the little door to the court.

Sure enough, the little door opens and a big-shouldered guy in a blue suit sticks his head in the door.

“Tranquility’s got winners,” he says, and then he closes the door.

“Tranquility” is Barbara Bush’s Secret Service code name, one of the few that reveal the Service’s under-rated gift for irony. Because Bob and I both know that when Bush comes into the court, she’ll come in like a Category-five hurricane in pink athletic shorts. And that’s all for Bob: he just about hands me the match, deliberately driving shots into the floor just to get it over with.

And as Bob exits through the tiny door, Mrs. Bush takes his place, ducking into the court, and then rolling her shoulders and cracking her neck. She’s stocky, but everything beneath that snow-white hair is sheer, high-definition muscle.

I know that my only chance is to work her back and forth across the court, try to use my thirty-seven-year advantage in age as much as possible. “Serve,” she says, and I do.

If you’ve never tried racquetball, it’s played in a closed room with a high ceiling, and all of the surfaces are in play. Young players hit hard, and run around a lot; but older players, especially those with really low centers of gravity like Barbara Bush, they make a science out of occupying center court and playing angles all day long.

And play me she does. Every time she hammers the ball behind me, it caroms back from some wicked angle I haven’t expected, and all I can do is run faster to try to make up for each misjudgement. Again and again she outhinks me on the angles, and finally I’m too exhausted to compensate any more.

That’s when she takes me out with a series of quick, punishing serves, just straight to the wall, like rifle shots.

I’m sitting on the floor, gasping for air, when she tosses me the ball.

“I heard what you wrote about my boy,” she says, giving me a look.

Then the door slams shut, and it’s quiet in the court. And I realize that George W. Bush may have gotten all three of his names from his father, but the machismo and the angles that was Barbara all the way, baby, all the way from the cradle itself.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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