Columnists

The True Story of ‘Hi When’

Not terribly long ago, I had the opportunity to walk around the campus of my alma mater. I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone. It was the middle of summer, and the whole place was deserted. The likelihood of a chance encounter in this academic ghost town was implausible.

So when I walked by the tennis facilities, and found the main doors open, I became unsettled.

I managed to go through an entire college career without seeing one tennis match. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to survey a building I had never been in before. Plus, I should investigate why the doors were not shut –– even though of all the sports, tennis might be the least attractive to thieves wanting to cash in on a robbery.

I walked through the steel double-door entry, and into the vestibule that separates the cozy atmosphere of the tennis courts from the usually chilly outdoor spring air during tennis season.

I had long since abandoned the idea that anyone was actually playing tennis. The familiar “thwock” sound of a tennis ball meeting a tennis racquet was conspicuous in its absence. Instead, the only sound was the low hum of the air handlers circulating the indoor air on the balmy summer day.

As I stood in the center of the expanse, and gazed down its length to the other end of the Quonset-style metal building –– some 75 yards or so –– I expected to see a maintenance employee replacing lighting or perhaps a team manager repairing equipment.

There was no one –– no one at least, until the rustling of papers behind me uncloaked a young man hidden in the shadows.

He had short, straight black hair, cropped in a practical style just above the eyebrows. He was not tall, although maybe a bit taller than what I expected for a young man of Asian ancestry. He sat at the end of a long row of tables, and had his head buried deep into the paperback he cradled in his hands.

“Hi!,” I blurted, somewhat startled by finding him behind me.

Immediately, the young man snapped to attention. He shoved his book onto the table, face down, creasing the page he was reading, bookmarking it to finish later. He rose abruptly, tossing his shoulders back.

“Yes, sir!” he replied sharply. His comportment was rigid, almost military. Had it not been for a bright, teeth-filled smile broadening his face, I might have ended the conversation there.

“No, Hi,” I returned, hoping I hadn’t frightened him. I waved my hands at arm’s length, fingers spread, palms toward him, in what I hoped was the universal sign of “you don’t have to fear me”.

“Yes, Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” I said.

“Yes, Hi.”

This awkward exchange convinced me the young man –– Vietnamese, I thought –– struggled with the English language. So, like most Americans, I decided I’d help translate by shouting at him.

“I’m John. John Marlowe. Pleased to meet you,” I yawped. I exaggerated the movement of my mouth, as if spanning the US / Southeast Asia cultural gap could be achieved by lip-reading.

“When,” he said.

My whole life.

At least that’s what I wanted to say. But, if this guy does understand English, he’ll be offended by my chippy answer. The smile never left the young man’s face, but I could feel the furrows in mine deepening by the second.

“No, Marlowe,” I repeated.

“Yes, when.”

I reached into my shirt pocket, hoping to grab a stray Tylenol, but in finding none, I said, “When what?”

“No. Not when what,” he said. “Hi when.”

“Who?”

“Not who. When. Hi when.”

Back and forth we went, just as if we were volleying adverbs on the court behind us. At last, with an energetic flailing of his arms, he motioned me over. He picked up the paperback book on the table. With that same big grin, he tapped rapidly, pointing to the words written inside the cover.

“This book belongs to Hai Nguyen. Please return if found.”

I’m just grateful the young man’s named wasn’t Hu. Wait a minute! He’s on first.

John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media.