Tuesdays with Si

Every Tuesday evening, Paul Hamra leaves his jewelry store in Scottsdale and drives across town to Si Kenig's house in central Phoenix for his weekly Ping-Pong lesson.

Paul parks his Lexus in the driveway, knocks hard and loud on the front door, then peers through the window to see if Si is lying down. If he is, it will take Si five full minutes to pull himself out of his hospital-style bed and shuffle to the door. Paul helps Si dress in a polo shirt, Velcro-strapped sneakers and a black leather dress belt to hold up his gym shorts.

Si fixes himself some juice in an old glass jar with a bendable straw and makes his way, tripping and swaying like a drunk, toward the back of the house where, every Tuesday evening, he kicks Paul's ass at Ping-Pong.

Si will be 82 next month. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 16 years ago.

Paul is pushing 40. He's trim, healthy, in great shape. Even Si will tell you that Paul's got the best backhand in the Phoenix Table Tennis Club.

But Paul Hamra is no match for the guy they used to call The Wall.

Si and Paul don't talk when they play. Paul packs the pockets of his black tennis shorts with neon orange balls he scoops like popcorn from a big purple vat, and they volley. Balls fly across the room, bouncing off the fluorescent lights on the ceiling, the couch, a spectator.

"You're putting too much spin on it," Si tells Paul, his voice so muffled by the Parkinson's and a heavy Polish accent that Paul has to run around to Si's side of the table and have him repeat himself several times before Paul nods and they resume play. Si is practically deaf, so Paul is on Si's side of the table a lot.

Paul dances when he plays, flies from one side of the table to the other, arms waving, sneakers squeaking on the linoleum. Within minutes, he's panting and sweaty.

In contrast, Si is frozen. The balls travel 100 miles an hour, and Si will have marks on his hands and arms by the end of the night from the ones he's missed. But he almost never misses. Only his forearm moves as he reaches out to hit the ball. When he's really loosened up, his hips sway just slightly and his head bobs up and down. He looks like Night of the Living Dead playing Ping-Pong.

An hour later, the floor is covered with balls. Paul needs a break.

"Si, why don't you get a drink? Get a little drink," Paul hollers, reaching into his gym bag for a water bottle. At first Si doesn't hear him, and stands stiffly in his spot at the table, waiting for Paul to serve. Paul repeats himself until Si finally obeys, tottering over to the card table where he keeps his juice.

"When he gets stiff, I got to go shake him up and he's got to do a couple laps around the table," Paul says.

But tonight Si is loose, and he beats Paul in game after game. Now, Paul does spot Si five points and he makes it a little easier for the older man by hitting the ball to one side of the table only, so Si doesn't have to move a lot. But Si usually doesn't need the points. He still trounces Paul, 21-14.

Paul jumps up and down and twirls in a circle, throwing a mock temper tantrum. "That drives me crazy!"

21-14, again. Then 21-8. Finally, Paul narrowly beats Si, 21-19.

"Si, show her your muscle," Paul yells across the table. Slowly, Si pulls up the sleeve on his right arm and flexes.

They play two more games. Paul loses both. Si still hasn't broken a sweat. "Oh, Si, my arm is worn out," Paul says, walking around the table and wiping first his own, then Si's paddle with a chamois-covered sponge.

Si looks disappointed. The men collect the Ping-Pong balls with a net that looks like the kind you use to get leaves out of the pool.

Si sits down on the couch, and immediately nods off. Paul packs up his gym bag. Playing Ping-Pong with Si is a "lesson in humility," he says. "But it's a good lesson, I guess."

As quickly as he's dozed off, Si is awake. He makes his way into the kitchen to fix himself some ramen. Tonight's lesson is over.

The first thing you notice about Si Kenig's house is the smell, a combination of ultra-strength Ben Gay and dirty laundry. The second thing you notice is that Ping-Pong trophies crowd every surface, every bookcase, end table and dresser in the tiny two-bedroom, one-bath house. There are also Ping-Pong medals and certificates, and plaques of appreciation from the parents of Si's former students. Everything is covered in dust.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.