Three months before I was born, my father bought an eight-court outdoor tennis club on three acres of land in New Rochelle, New York. The club sits at the bottom of what amounts to a gully, down the block from a swampy lily pond that overflows during thunderstorms and floods the basements of the handsome Tudor homes in the neighborhood.
The courts themselves are made of a material called Har-Tru, a gray-green clay that smells like a mixture of coffee grounds and fresh-cut grass. It’s soft and easy on the knees, perfect for middle-aged investment bankers and ad executives but more difficult to maintain than hard courts.
When it rains, the material softens, expands like a sponge, and turns into a shallow lake. During dry spells, it gets chalky and swirls around on warm breezes. Like lunar dust, Har-Tru sticks to everything. It gunks up sneakers, stains white tennis shorts, and accumulates in socks. As a kid, over the course of a given summer, I’d transfer an entire court’s worth of Har-Tru to our living room.
The courts were our family’s livelihood; their quality was a matter of pride for my father. Like a farmer who knows the precise chemical composition of the soil in his fields, he could step out on the courts, sniff the air, and know whether to water them or let them bake in the sun. He never read weather reports (he called weathermen “crooks”) but developed meteorological instincts. He sensed drops in barometric pressure and intuited the approach of autumnal cold fronts.
“Rain’s coming,” he’d say, looking out over the courts like an Oklahoman homesteader.
Even when I went south to the University of Virginia, I found Har-Tru waiting for me. The company that manufactures it boasts on their homepage that Har-Tru comes from “billion-year-old Pre-Cambrian metabasalt found in the Blue Ridge Mountains.” I could have walked to their corporate headquarters from the center of campus. Charlottesville has brilliant sunsets thanks to the airborne coal dust carried on the wind from mines in West Virginia. I couldn’t help but stare at yellow-orange-pink skies over the Blue Ridge in autumn and think, Look at all that Har-Tru.