I was in upper New York with a couple of hours to kill before my train left the station. I sat at a table in a drafty student union building drinking coffee out of a paper cup, and reading Robert Walser. When I looked up, much to my surprise, there sat Lydia Davis, the writer and translator, two tables away. She was likewise sipping a drink and reading.

I watched her lower her book, and smile. Her wide hazel eyes lasered on the ping-pong table, and I thought, surely a story must be cogitating behind those big-framed eye-glasses. 

To my surprise, she nodded at the table, her eyes inquisitively asking me to play.

Years ago, I’d won a park board ping-pong tournament, receiving a small trophy, and in high school I’d been a pretty good tennis player. Naturally, I was willing to play.

Lydia stood up, leaving her threadbare Strand bookbag behind, walked over to the table, and rolled up her long sleeves. I joined her, timidly, for I’d read all her work and was a huge fan. Knowing better than to mix literature with sport, I decided to hold my praise after the match was over.

Trying to impress her, I casually mentioned how interesting it was that the sport of ping-pong had originated in Victorian England as a parlor game to give the podsnappery something to do during cold, dark winter months.  

She reminded me that only in the US is the sport called “ping-pong,” which some purists argue is an offensive term. “The technical name,” she said, “is ‘table tennis.’” 

She held out the paddles; I took one. Her big, serious eyes and firm jaw suffered no fools.

We played for serve; she won. She served and we rallied until the ball hit the edge of the table and dipped, mollifying my attacking return. I had to puff the ball back, which she smashed for a point.

The corners of her eyes crinkled like tissue paper; her lips pursed like a disapproving librarian.
Classy, I thought. 

“Ping-pong, as you call it, has had various names,” she said, luring me in with a moonball. I smashed it—straight into the net. 

“Point,” she said. 

She served, we volleyed.    

“Other names?”     




I hit the ball into the net.    

“Point,” she said. “And by the way, those are onomatopoeias which replicate the sound of a ball striking the paddle.”   

“Interesting,” I said. “How about the Mandarin Chinese ‘ping pang qiu’?” I’d read somewhere the Chinese had taken credit for the sport—then again, what hadn’t they invented? Paper, gunpowder, the compass, printing—and, according to a Shanghai lawyer, a Chinese Muslim eunuch named Zhang He discovered the Americas in 1421.    

“In actuality,” Lydia said, “‘ping pang qui’ is nothing more than a translation of ‘ping-pong.’”    


The dark gray scarf wrapped around her neck flapped as she chased down shots. She couldn’t miss.     

Flustered, I flubbed a serve, missed hitting a winner to her backhand corner and hit a simple, uninspired serve which she smacked into the net.     

“Point!” I said enthusiastically.    

She squinted. Her short backhand serve caught me off guard.  

“Point,” she countered, and then proceeded to take me to church on the dented and chipped table, rattling off points until she’d won the game.    

Both paddles were made of cheap laminated wood with sandpapery surfaces. The longer we played, the more I thought mine must have some inherent flaw—the surface too smooth, or a deadening crack in the head. Maybe the handle was wrongly weighted.     

“It must be this paddle!” I blurted.   

Lydia reminded me that while American’s call it a “paddle,” European and Asian players call it a “bat.”    

She challenged me to another game. “Try another bat, if you like,” she offered.    

I said ping-pong wasn’t for the f-e-i-n-t of heart. I spelled it out, like a real jack-ass.    

Smugly, she smiled for the first time that afternoon, as though she were making a mental note for a story she might write. I hurried and quick-served her, winning the point. She glared, the corners of her mouth turning up. I’d once seen a photo of her online where she was holding a black cat, and she was smiling that same tolerantly contemptuous smile. I knew my luck had run out. She rattled off straight points, thanked me for playing, and then left. It was time for me to catch my train anyway, and once onboard, not seeing she was a passenger, I pulled out my cell phone, Googled “feint” and saw that I’d been beaten again. 

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DS Levy lives in the Midwest and loves playing all kinds of racquet sports. “Feint of Heart” is one in a series of "imaginative sports-with-writer stories" in which she honors her mentors. She has had work published in New World Writing, Bull Men's Fiction, Atticus Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and others. Her flash chapbook, A Binary Heart, was published by Finishing Line Press.