In the YMCA sauna, Bill Drucker, a pharmacist, was holding forth on the subject of mutual funds, pros and cons, when the door banged open and an icy blast of air slapped everybody’s cheeks. Pontius Pilate strode in, his wool robes shushing against his naked, hairy ankles. “Hello, boys!” he said. Father Delmont, who was seated next to me, cinched his soggy white towel around his waist and scurried out of the sauna. Pilate insinuated himself between Drucker and me on the wooden bench and tapped my knee with his white-taped fingers. “I have been looking for you,” he said. “We are on at three, my friend.”

He was referring to the ymca table-tennis tournament. Earlier in the day, I had been standing at the bulletin board, anxious to see who I would play in the third round of the tourney. When the results were posted, I shuddered at the name of my opponent: Pontius Pilate.

“Tough draw,” said Brad Thomas, reading over my shoulder.

In the tiny, cramped sauna, it was hard to ignore Pilate’s presence. He shook his thin body out of his robe and cozied up next to me. The stale stench of athlete’s foot and musty wool assaulted my nostrils. Humming what sounded like “Good Day Sunshine,” Pilate ladled water over the hot ceramic rocks. “Warm enough, my friend?” He smiled. Greasy mustache hairs curled down into his mouth. His face was sharp and narrow, like an ax blade covered in moss.

I ignored him. Sweat poured down my cheeks in the diabolical heat. “Talk to Ed Ramos about those mutual funds, Bill,” I said to Drucker over Pilate’s head. “He’ll tell you what’s what. He’s a financial advisor, I think.”

Pilate nodded. “That,” he said, “is an important job. I was once the procurator of Judea. It was pretty thankless work, all in all. But like most jobs it had its perks.” He smiled. “I sentenced people to death on a whim, things like that. But I find ping-pong a much more soothing activity, don’t you? Of course, one must retain something of the executioner’s calm concentration to be truly effective. . . . See you at three!” And with that, he strolled out of the sauna, whistling a dirge.

Bill Drucker mopped his bald head with his towel. “What the hell is that get-up — a Halloween costume? Is it Halloween again, Nick? Did I miss something?”

I laughed. Pilate was an odd number, all right.

“They should take away his membership,” Drucker said fiercely. “I’m serious. He’s traumatizing little boys around here.” He scratched his wrist. “Hell, I’m traumatized!”

“Don’t worry. I’ll beat him,” I said.

As the reigning champion, I felt pretty good about my chances. I was the number-one seed in the tournament and the best ping-pong player at the Delaware Avenue y. But Pilate was a dark-horse challenger. Nobody really knew what he was capable of. It was twenty minutes to three. I had to admit, I was worried about facing him. After all, if you believed the story, the guy had sent Christ to the cross. What the hell would he do to me?

We were scheduled for table two in the Tony Carlucci Memorial Room on the second floor. In the locker room, I mentally reviewed all that I knew about Pilate’s style. I try to imagine the entire match before I play it. I think about an opponent’s weaknesses, isolate each one, and then figure out how to exploit them. It’s called creative visualization.

This is what I knew. Pilate used an unorthodox variation of a Korean pen-hold grip. His forehand was crisp and accurate; his backhand confident, reliably defensive. He would commit very few unforced errors. He was patient, calculating, and cruel.

What can be said about Pilate’s footwork? Occasionally, in a tough match, he used a lateral crossover technique that seemed all but impossible in his heavy robes. When performed properly, the crossover is the most graceful way to cover four feet of floor space quickly. Crossing one dusty sandal smoothly behind the other, Pilate could move from the backhand corner to the forehand corner in the blink of an eye.

In short, he had an all-around game, no weaknesses.

Most of the guys at the y wore lightweight shorts and t-shirts. It can get awfully hot during summer, and there is no ac in the main building. But Pilate didn’t seem to notice the heat. He was always dressed in flowing woolen robes and sandals. His dirt-crusted toes (jagged yellow nails, never clipped) poked out beneath the frayed hem of his robe. An adversary could not monitor Pilate’s legs for clues as to which direction he might lean on his returns, and he often baffled his opponents with cross-table winners. There had been a rumor that a dress code would be instituted, banning robes from match play, but I doubted anything would come of it. If anything, Pilate’s attire put him at a disadvantage. No matter how you sliced it, though, he was a formidable opponent.

I sat by my locker and tried to pray, but I felt foolish and hypocritical. I was not a spiritual person. Beginning in junior high school, I had scorned all religion and mocked anyone who professed to believe in God. I claimed that I worshiped Satan, although really I just wore black t-shirts and quoted Aleister Crowley to my classmates. It gave me an identity. Between 1986 and 1989, I was expelled from three Catholic schools in Buffalo, New York. To me, it was a confirmation. While my buddies were smoking hash behind the Highland Plaza or hanging out with the horny girls in the Sheridan projects, I was adding to my record-setting number of detentions. As an apostle of Lucifer, I felt it was my duty to oppose the system from within. I was a loser. Sometimes I snuck a quart of malt liquor into the detention room and drank it while the proctor wasn’t looking, hoping to impress my classmates, who thought I was a creep.

One night, after the principal of Saint Anthony’s — my third school — told me not to return after Christmas break, my father came in my room while I slept. He woke me up by pressing his thumb into my neck under my Adam’s apple. I felt my windpipe constrict. Frantically I tried to peel his hands off me. “You’re a bad kid,” he said. “Why can’t you stay out of trouble?” My hands flapped wildly at his wrists. I was lightheaded, terrified. I smelled the bourbon on his breath. “You’ve had everything, so many advantages. . . .”

High school was a blur. Alone in my bedroom, I drank Popov vodka by the fifth. I smoked and snorted whatever anyone handed me at suburban house parties. My parents were fools, I thought. They did not have my best interests in mind. Yet I implicitly trusted every gasoline sniffer and half-retarded pill popper in Buffalo. One night I swallowed a handful of what somebody said was Valium. They were prescription-strength antidiarrheals. I didn’t crap for five days.

Whatever there was, I put it in my mouth. “Let Nick test it first.” But all I really wanted to do was drink every day. Eventually I stopped coming home a few nights a week, or I’d bang through the back door at 7 a.m. to find my parents showered and seated at the breakfast table, staring angrily at me. My father left for work at the same time every morning. My mother yelled and threatened and begged me to turn my life around. Did I want to be a bum living on the street? Did I want to throw my life away? But she had her own problems and needed me for emotional support, so she never followed through on her threats to discipline me. When I was seventeen, I moved out for good.

I got a ged and went to Buffalo State College, where I wore a Slayer t-shirt and doodled pentagrams in the margins of my notebooks. I stomped around campus, highly recognizable with my long, unwashed hair, my tattered jean jacket, and my engineer boots. I was not anti-intellectual. I loved reading. My tiny apartment was filled with books. I read Russian novels, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, anarchist tracts. I wanted to be the smartest drunk in the bar. And once I was able to direct my own education, I was much happier. But whenever I started feeling good, I always sabotaged myself. I got arrested or beaten up. Drinking was no longer a recreation. Every morning I drank a shot and a beer. I hated the happy people anyway. They weren’t being honest with themselves, I thought.

Working a dead-end job was for frauds and losers. Every other week, I called in sick at the video store, the bookstore, the liquor store, wherever I was punching the clock, and was indignant each time a boss told me I was fired. Somehow it always came as a surprise. I pretended that I didn’t care. They needed me more than I needed them.

One winter, I rode around in a guy’s van delivering books to elementary schools. I humped heavy boxes up icy sidewalks, sweating an awful alcohol stink into my thermal underwear. The pay was thirty bucks a day under the table. One morning I staggered into the boys’ bathroom and violently puked. Nauseous Gulliver down on his knees, hugging the tiny bowl. The stall had no door. Two kids came in and started giggling and pointing at me. When I turned and glared at them, they got scared and hurried out. Peter never fired me, I suspect because he couldn’t find anyone else to do the job. But he knew I was a drunk. Some mornings I showed up; other mornings I didn’t. It was pitiful. I couldn’t even ride around Buffalo with some dude in a customized van and deliver books. And yet I had this exalted opinion of myself: If they only knew what I’m capable of. . . . Nobody knows how talented I am. . . . Et cetera.

Toward the end, I slept in cold basements, on people’s floors, and in stairwells. For six weeks I crashed in my friend Mike’s dorm room, until I pissed on his stereo. He punched me and told me to fuck off. I was a blackout drinker. Open your eyes and look around each morning; hope you’re still wearing clothes. I terrorized myself.

In rehab, they told us to get involved with activities, to stay busy, and to say a prayer when we felt squirrelly. Go to meetings. Make phone calls. Say a prayer. Stay busy. Don’t sit around and waste time. I joined the ymca after I got out of the halfway house. The y was perfect for me, a place I could go during the day, a place to hide. Within a year I had mastered most of the group activities. I’ve always been good at games. Ping-pong pleased me in a way that not many other things did. I enjoyed the repetition of it and could get lost in its rhythms. I stopped obsessing about drinking. I made some friends. I even started to look people in the eye. I got a job as a janitor at a junior high school in Kenmore. Every night after work, I took the bus to the y and played against anyone who was there. Ping-pong, in some ways, became a religion to me.


At one minute before three, Pontius Pilate bustled into the Carlucci Room with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. His sleeve was pulled back, exposing the matted brown hairs on his forearm. The pungent smell of chlorine and cherry cough drops wafted behind him. “I need to stretch my limbs first,” he said and dropped his bag by the humming Coke machine in the corner. “OK? Or are you in some big hurry to begin?”

The mind games had already begun. He knew the match was scheduled to begin precisely at three. He was attempting to determine my threshold for frustration.

“Fine,” I said. “Stretch. Whatever. Do what you gotta do.”

He winked at me. “Thanks, babe.” And he launched into a ferocious display of violent kickboxing and tae kwon do maneuvers, grunting savagely. “Hi-ya! Hi-ya!” he breathed, thrusting his fists forward. Then he segued into light aerobic exercises, “one, two, one, two,” twisting his torso from side to side. “Busy day in the pool,” he said, and he dropped to the floor. “Newborn babies and their dads.” Supine, he performed a complex series of groin and abdominal stretches. He pulled each thigh to his chest, counted to seven, then released. “Kids should not be allowed in the pool. They urinate.” Hands on hips, Pilate scissored his slender, hairy legs above him. “A little chilly outdoors, eh? Supposed to be sunny today. High of seventy.” He leapt to his feet and turned his back to me. As he bent over to tap his toes, he flipped aside his robes and addressed me from between his legs. “Ever read the Book of John? The one in the Bible?” he asked. “It’s quite good, I think.”

“Hey, dude,” I said, “are we gonna start soon or what?”

He held up his taped index finger. “Please,” he said and bowed his head. “Let us pray.” After what appeared to be some form of silent meditation, during which his lips moved quickly, he unlidded his left eye and gazed at me, grinning. “Ready then?” he said.

I nodded, stone-faced.

We volleyed for serve. Pilate won. He held the ball up for me to see. “Pontius Pilate to serve,” he announced.

The match was finally underway.

Pilate hit with remarkable power. I noticed that he changed his grip on almost every serve. He flung his robes up behind him and sometimes grunted exclamations that were maddeningly intrusive. “Christ!” The ball came fast and high, taking me by surprise. Serves blew by me. “That ball is gone!” he crowed as I chased the ball halfway across the room. “It was banished, driven from the table. Gone. Like religious faith, like romantic love, like an unattended plate in a Chinese buffet.”

Once he got rolling, it was hard to shut him up. Pilate was a master shit-talker.

“Under certain circumstances,” he said, blinking innocently at me, “can a rock be both igneous and sedimentary?”

I said nothing.

“I think it can,” he said.

Still I said nothing.

We played without speaking for six or eight points. Pilate calmly flicked his wrist to return my serves, singing quietly: “Hot-blooded, check it and see. . . .” The ball kept coming back at me. No matter what I threw at him, hard or soft, he returned it. Pilate was a “reactor.” He recognized all variations of spin. He was savage with my short serves, merciless with side topspins. If I stood back too far, he would drop a short underspin return just over the net, where it would die quivering like a single drop of mercury. If I crowded the table, he bounced a high smoker into my sternum.

The score was 12-8, Pilate. Ball in hand, he swayed over the table, taunting me. “I am going to serve now. But where will it go? Nobody knows. Look out. Could be hard, could be soft.” He lurched forward, grunted, and served up a short sidespin that slid off my end of the table like a cube of jello.

“Thirteen for me,” he sang, “but only nine for you.”

“Eight,” I said quietly.

“Oh, right. Eight.”

“Just serve the ball and stop yapping, old man.”

“Heavens, am I bothering you? Terribly sorry.” And he rifled a quick serve into my abdomen. “Fourteen for me! I got a fever of a hundred and three.”

Then I battled back patiently. I chose each shot wisely and won seven consecutive points. The ball streaked over the net, a flash of white. I had him on his heels. He committed his first unforced error. At 17-16, my lead, with the momentum clearly in my favor, Pilate said: “Ow, wait, I stubbed my toe. Time out,” and he hobbled over to a nearby chair.

He sipped a plastic cup of water and fanned a towel in front of his face. Grimacing, he twisted his foot up and closely inspected his filthy, wrinkled arch. A minute passed. I refused to show any reaction. Rubbing his toes, he smiled at me and said: “Let’s get to know each other a little better. OK? These tournaments are always so impersonal. I’m Pontius. And what’s your name again?”


He squeezed his big toe. “Pleased to know you, Nick. Are you Catholic, by any chance?”

I knew I shouldn’t answer, but I did. “My father was,” I said.

He nodded. “Funny how Catholics have such a desire to embrace Rome, although Romans were their greatest persecutors for centuries.” He kneaded his toes. “Curious, isn’t it? But the Romans persecuted the Jews too, of course. So rather than find themselves on the side of the Jews, Christians preferred to embrace Rome and all its hatred for them. Don’t you find that odd? Self-defeating, even?”

One thing was clear: he would stop at nothing to defeat me. He hoped to make me question my faith right there in the Tony Carlucci Memorial Room, so that I would doubt the very foundation of my belief and thus lose this pivotal third-round match. But I didn’t have any faith — none that I was consciously aware of, anyway.

“No more talk,” I said, and I stalked back to my side of the table. “Time’s up.”

“OK, ok,” he sighed. “If that’s how you play the game, Nick.” He winced. “My foot really hurts. I think it’s swollen. But if you cannot allow me another minute of rest, I understand. I shall limp over and try to compete.”

I didn’t reply. Pilate remained seated. He rubbed the sole of his foot.

“Do you like me?” he asked.

I groaned. “Dude.”

“Theologians like to portray me as reluctant and weak, easily bullied.” He looked up at me. “Do you know why? By vilifying me, they neutralized the conflict between the early Christian Church and Roman authority. They knew they would have to iron out their differences eventually, and they needed a scapegoat. Et voilà. C’est moi.”

It made sense, but I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to win the match and continue on to the quarterfinals.

He smiled and lowered his eyes. “You know, I am a person too, Nick. And I have made some mistakes. Of course I have, but . . .” He waved his hand. He turned his head and sniffled. “Sorry,” he said, standing unsteadily. “I just get emotional.” He came over to my side of the table. “My family has been dead for centuries, and I have not a single friend in this country. Do you know what that feels like, Nick, to be so incredibly alone in the world?”

For a moment I was tempted to console him, but I remained silent because I had heard that Pilate would do or say anything to win at ping-pong. I was on my guard.

“What was your childhood like, Nick?” he asked. He had not yet picked up his paddle. He leaned his right hip casually against the side of the table. “I’m interested,” he said. “You can tell me. I promise I won’t tell a soul.”

I said nothing. I examined the paddle in my hand.

Pilate touched his fingertips to the table. “Did he fondle you, Nick? . . . Did Daddy climb into bed with you?”

“No! There was nothing like that in my childhood.”

“But he was a violent man, Nick. Prone to sudden bursts of fury. He dragged your mother up the stairs by her hair one Saturday night. She screamed. And you were sent to Sunday school the next morning, as if nothing had changed in your life. He sat next to your mother in church, receiving the priest’s benediction.”

“Idiot,” I said. “I’m not listening to you.”

“You probably should,” he said with a shrug. “I would like to help you.”

In rehab, they told us to seek a higher power — meaning something higher than ourselves. They said we could live a rich spiritual life without pledging allegiance to any particular religion, but we needed to find a God of our own understanding. At first, it sounded like a load of hot steaming crap — you want me to build my own God like some kind of divine Dagwood sandwich? — but what were the alternatives? My best thinking usually landed me in the holding center. For years, I’d looked for God in bottles and books and Satan and sex. None of those options worked for me. In the rehab, I sat through our daily meetings with my arms crossed on my chest. I hated being there — couldn’t they see that I was not one of them? — but I listened to others talk about their higher powers, and I became envious. I wanted one, too. Anything that helped me get outside of myself and become useful to others could be considered a higher power, my sponsor told me. Grumbling, I mopped the floors and took out the trash. For some reason, I started to feel hopeful about my future. It was not a bright-light experience. It was like finally learning a shortcut to a place you’ve been driving around for decades. Before that, I had not recognized the difference between a religious and a spiritual life.

Pilate’s chapped lips parted to reveal a warm, generous smile, the smile of a kind uncle, say, or an old friend. It confused and frightened and intrigued me, but I knew the ways of manipulative men. They had been my teachers, and I had become one of them. I recognized Pilate as easily as an addict recognizes a dealer on an unfamiliar street.

Pilate shook his head. “It’s a terrible thing for a young boy to be treated that way by his father, Nick. You were only a child; how could you defend her? How could you defend yourself? I am sorry you had to go through that.” He spun the paddle in his hand. “Did you learn my name in Sunday school? Did they talk about me quite a bit?” Tilting his head to the side, Pilate appraised me. “How old are you?”

I glared at him. “It’s none of your business.” Then I said, “I’m twenty-nine.”

“Twenty-nine,” he repeated. “You want to be a more spiritual person, Nick. A responsible, caring, sober adult. Not like him.” He paused. “It’s part of your recovery, this spiritual awakening. Is that not what you were told? . . . I know you better than you think, Nick. Listen to me. They are lying to you. Deep down, you know they are lying. They tell you to find a God of your own understanding, but how can you have a religion, or a God of any kind, along with this burning anger? This anger that seethes in you and makes you blind? You want to let it out, and it must come out.”

“Enough,” I said, scraping my paddle on the edge of the table. “Let’s play.”

My heart was thumping hard in my chest. My heart seemed to be rising in my chest. Breathing heavily, I reached out and steadied myself against the table.

“Having a little problem?” Pilate asked.

“This is delay of game,” I said.

Pilate stroked his beard with his filthy thumb and forefinger. “And the funeral. Your father dies before you can reconcile with him. So much unfinished between you two. How can you make amends with a dead man? It’s too late, Nick. You missed your chance.”

“It’s my serve,” I said.

“No,” he said and waved his hand, flourishing the white ball. “It is not.”

He bounced the ball once, twice on the table. His hand closed over it. “The death of a father is traumatic, Nick,” he said. “You have never really addressed it. Perhaps a drink would take the sting away. You pass a dozen bars every night after work. Who would know? No harm in one cold beer. Is there?”

And he served.

We battled back and forth. Winners, volleys, and unforced errors. We were tied at twenty-one, tied at twenty-seven. My wristbands were drenched with sweat. My thin t-shirt clung to my back. I lunged and skidded around the table. The soles of my Adidas squeaked on the polished hardwood floor. Tok, tok, tok. The ball flew over the net. The ferocity of our play drew the attention of other men. Eight or nine guys paraded in from the racquetball courts. They gathered around the perimeter to watch us. I was terrified of making a mistake, yet I knew that climbing into a defensive shell at this stage of the game would be a disaster. I needed to remain on the offensive, pressing forward.

Without warning, memories of my father filled my head. They swirled and became knotted with other memories of my blackouts, broken bones, random nights in jail. I put my paddle down and stepped back from the table. “Time out,” I said.

Grinning, Pilate glanced at his black plastic wristwatch. “Whenever you’re ready to resume.”

I saw my parents standing together in front of our old house, posing for a photograph. My mother is squinting into the sun, and my father has one arm looped around her waist. A brown bottle of beer (Genesee?) sits on the top step, next to stiff leather garden gloves. My mother stands rigid, unsmiling.

All my life I resented my mother, because her love for me endured no matter what I did or said to her. The ease of its attainment tainted it. My father was angry, impatient, and drunk much of the time, and I sought his approval that much more because of its unavailability. I wanted only what I couldn’t have. In my mother I saw myself. I could’ve joined forces with her in solidarity against our common foe, but I acted cowardly. Dad ignored her, so I did too. I tried to escape, to push myself away, to punch away from her and all that she represented. Because I knew the secret of his fury: it was not personal. It simply alighted on whoever was closest. And if you didn’t have enough sense to escape, you deserved what you got. Unconditional love, like a limp or blindness, was the impediment that would strand Mom with him. And it did. But that was how she’d learned to love, from her own unhappy mother.

When my father died, Mom couldn’t sit still and flew about the house like a deflating balloon. Drunk, I visited her every afternoon. I rifled through her fridge and cupboards. Sitting next to her on her couch while afternoon talk shows blared from her tv, I munched miniature Halloween Snickers bars and watched her fidget with her glasses or the hem of her blouse. All my words meant nothing. “I love you, Mom. I’m here for you.” She nodded and nodded her head, pretending to listen, but her eyes were blank. Every fifteen minutes she would lurch up from the couch and wander through the kitchen, mumbling softly to herself.

Pilate stood there, watching me. “Nick,” he said at last, “I want to help you. I’m here for you. Just like you, I try to learn a few things about my opponents before I play them. You told a few people about your problems with the bottle, and they told a few people. . . . Amazing what you can learn on a racquetball court these days.” He scratched his greasy beard. “I’m interested: do you take wine at Communion?”

I wanted to pound the living shit out of him. He was a tiny, hairy man in a reeking Salvation Army bathrobe. I could easily slam him to the floor. But I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me riled. I swiped the front of my sweaty shirt across my eyes and bent down to grab my paddle. “Let’s finish this,” I said.

He smiled at me, shrugged, and sent a spinning corkscrew serve into my abdomen. “Heads up,” he giggled. “Stay alert.”

There had to be a way to beat him. If only I could hold him off long enough, I knew I would find the key. I bounced the ball on the table, stalling for time as I worked out my strategy.

“Tired?” Pilate asked, smirking. He looked dry, rested, self-assured. Barely winded.

“No,” I said. But I was. I had never felt so drained.

Smiling, Pilate opened his mouth and revealed a clutter of stained, crisscrossed teeth. “There’s no need for us to be so competitive,” he said. “You and I should be friends, Nick. Some night we should go out for a few beers and perhaps a fish fry. How does that sound?”

“Not interested.”

“Are you sure?” He grinned. He was inside his body looking out at me. His teeth were like cracked pottery shards wedged into his gums. I imagined yanking him out of himself with forceps and dragging him to a mirror. I wanted him to stare into his own weathered, narrow face: the heavy-lidded eyes; the deep vertical crease between the brows; and that patchy, greasy brown beard. How morbid he seemed to me, how sick and lonely. Against my will, I felt sorry for him.

A few guys started clapping and cheering. “Come on, Nick,” they called out. “Let’s go, Nick.”

Pilate wheeled around. He bared his teeth like a cornered dog. “Please. You are distracting me,” he admonished them.

“Oh, hey, sorry, Pilate,” said Chuckie Smoltz. “Don’t mind me, man.” The others laughed. Pilate glared at him. Chuckie held up his hands in mock submission. “I’m tremblin’ over here,” he said. “I’m shakin’ in my sandals, Pontius.”

Before Pilate arrived, during my creative-visualization session, I’d looked for some crucial aspect of his personality, some weakness that might precipitate his downfall. Now I remembered: he was especially susceptible to the noise of a crowd. And I knew that was how I would finally beat him.

Pilate didn’t have any close friends among the y regulars. But his robe and sandals were so strange and forbidding, how could he expect anyone to accept him? The guys at the Delaware Avenue y were uniformly slow to accept racial and historical diversity, true, but Pilate didn’t help his case. He never seemed to let his hair down and relax. He never attended our “till dawn” mixers with the wild ladies of the downtown ywca. He didn’t show up at our summer barbecues and softball games. And he didn’t seem to know anything at all about cars, ice hockey, or politics. It didn’t matter who he played ping-pong against: nobody ever cheered for him.

When the score reached 31-30, my lead, I cupped my hand behind my ear and spurred the guys on. “I can’t hear you,” I said.

Scott Gaggiano clapped loudly. “Finish him off, Nick,” he shouted. “Down with Pilate.” The others joined him, chanting in unison, “Nick, Nick, Nick!”

“Silence! I cannot bear the taunting of an ignorant crowd.” Pilate whirled around to face them. “You people understand nothing,” he cried. “I find no case against Nick.” He held open his hands. “Can’t you be more kind?”

“Oh, piss off,” said Dave Jensen.

Pilate looked at me with sad eyes and lowered his voice. “God doomed me to walk the earth for eternity, Nick, engaged in mindless activities with fools. Mornings I watch soap operas and game shows on the motel tv. And I get only rock-and-roll on the little clock radio in my room. I would like a little jazz.” He frowned. “Afternoons I come here, only to be ridiculed and . . . Don’t you see? I did all I could for Christ. I did not want him to die. . . . Read the Book of John. You’ll see.”

Chuckie Smoltz let loose a Bronx cheer of monumental proportions. Spit flew from his flapping lips. His face turned crimson. Everybody laughed.

“Look at me, babe,” Pilate moaned. “I’m a mess over here. Dig this awful robe! Even the drifters in Judea wore better threads than this.” He clasped his hands before his chest as if in prayer. “Have mercy on me.”

I bounced the ball a few times on the table, ignoring him.

“I was born in Cleveland in 1957,” Pilate said miserably. “I’m an orphan.”

As he reached to pick up his paddle, I noticed something in his downcast eyes that I didn’t like. Pilate was not to be trusted. He would do anything to get ahead. I had once been like that, too. I knew a lot about lying and casting blame and laying guilt trips and fleeing responsibility.

There was so much I wanted to tell him, but I knew he wouldn’t listen. He was a one-man riot of will. How could you help a man who refused to help himself?

“My serve,” I announced, and I held the ball up over my head. “Match point.”

He clutched his paddle with both hands. “Serve,” he said defiantly, getting into his stance. “I’ll rip you apart, kid.”

Pilate was stubborn. How much longer could he hold out, furious and resentful at the world? Ten thousand years? Until he couldn’t even remember why he was so angry in the first place? I doubted that he would ever be honest with himself. He whined and sulked like a toddler. He pointed his finger at everyone but himself. To what lengths would he be willing to go to change his life? That was up to him.

You have to earn forgiveness.