|I sat in the cart while
Miller stood on the tee box and swiveled his hips back and forth like a
hula girl. It was windy, and colder than it should have been for May. A
line of dark clouds in the distance looked like something from the Old
Testament. “You paying attention?” Miller said. “You getting this? It’s
all in the hips, my man. All in the hips.”
“Enough,” I said. “Just tee off already.”
Miller was six-three, gangly as a teenager,
all arms and legs. Behind the bar on a busy night he was always knocking
things over, spilling drinks down his shirt. But put a golf club in his
hands and he became the very picture of grace. “Are you taking notes?”
he said. “I’m trying to teach you something here.”
“Seriously,” I said. “Can we just get
on with it?”
At first it looked like Miller’s drive
might catch one of the trees that hung down over the right-hand rough.
But then it began its slow, loopy draw, finally plopping down in the middle
of the fairway and rolling to a stop just short of a bunker. He polished
off his beer on the walk back to the cart, then fished another from the
cooler. “Golf,” he said, “is a game of small miracles and small disappointments.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“You still on that first beer?” he
said. “Let’s pick it up.”
Standing on the tee box, the wind came
from every direction at once.
“If you can keep this next one in the
short grass,” Miller called from the cart, “I’ve got a special surprise
for you.” He put his feet up and lit a cigarette. “Left arm straight,”
he said. “Follow through.”
“Fuck off,” I said.
“Such hostility,” Miller said. “Such
My ball sailed into the trees. I heard
it strike wood. My father would no doubt see this as emblematic of my life.
I was floating around like a ship without a rudder. I’d blown off course.
Couldn’t keep it between the channel markers. My father was a sailor –
not professionally, just weekends and holidays – and he liked to talk in
nautical metaphors. Luckily he lived eight-hundred miles away.
“I think you’ll be okay over there,”
Miller said. “It opens up, back behind those trees.” He steered the cart
with his knees. “I suppose I can give you your surprise anyway,” he said.
“Even though you didn’t rightfully earn it.”
“Goody,” I said.
Miller slammed the brakes, and I pitched
against the dash, catching myself with my hands. I turned to him and he
was grinning like an idiot. “I’m driving from here on out,” I said.
“Just decide to be in a good mood,”
Miller said. “How hard is that? Just say to yourself, ‘Today I’m gonna
be in a great fucking mood.’”
He pulled an iron from his bag and
took a few warm-up swings. Watching him made me imagine a country club
childhood, though truth was I knew only bits and pieces about his past:
a family in Charleston that traced its lineage to before the Confederacy;
a golf scholarship to Clemson; a marriage that ended before he turned twenty-one.
I didn’t know what went wrong with school, or the marriage. I didn’t know
how he’d wound up in Charlotte. Our friendship was one of proximity – crammed
behind a bar night after night, you could get to know a person without
really getting to know him. My first shift at Atlantic Beer & Ice,
he’d eyed me suspiciously, then filled a shot glass to spilling with Wild
Turkey. It was early, the only customers a couple old guys leaning into
the bar on their elbows. I swallowed the whiskey and grimaced. Warm liquor
always made me want to spit. “You play any golf?” Miller said.
His ball landed short of the green
but rolled up to the fringe. He stood there watching after it, then pulled
a sandwich baggie from his shorts and tossed it into my lap.
“Christ,” I said. “Really?”
“Give me one good reason,” he said.
“It’s not even noon?” I said. “I feel
like shit? I’ve got things to do later?”
“I know for a fact you’re off the next
two days,” he said.
I knew Penny would be pissed if I came
home off my ass again. I knew we only had so many fights left before we’d
be on our last one. “Try not to take it so personally,” I said.
Miller slipped the baggie back into
his pocket. “Move over,” he said. “I’m driving.”
He wouldn’t look at me while he steered
the cart toward the green. He sucked at his beer and slipped a hand into
his shorts, extracted two small, red pills, which he swallowed quickly.
“I saw that,” I said. “I need to go
look for my ball.”
“Drop one near the green,” Miller said.
“You’ll never find it over there anyway.”
I got my undergrad degree in three-and-a-half
years, then went straight to grad school. For a couple semesters it was
smooth sailing. The work was easy enough, and I spent my spare time reading
crime novels on the quad and watching the coeds in their tank tops and
tiny shorts. Then in the fall of my second year, something cracked. I couldn’t
concentrate. I’d raise my hand in class, then panic. I’d have to leave
the room and sprint to the toilet to throw up. Some mornings, I couldn’t
bring myself to climb from bed. My advisor recommended the school shrink,
and the school shrink recommended anti-anxiety pills and weekly office
visits. I went that route for a few months but the pills made me feel blank.
I felt like an actor standing around waiting for someone to explain his
motivations. The doctor offered to tweak the dosage, but I’d had enough.
I told people I was only taking a break.
But the truth was I liked my new life. I didn’t want to be a bartender
forever, but there was something pleasantly solid about the work – no theory,
just practice. Some nights it got so busy you couldn’t even think. And
the money was great.
I met Penny at the County Fair, of
all places. Miller had dragged me there to ride the Gravitron. We wandered
the fairgrounds stoned on pot and painkillers, drinking lemonade from plastic
cups shaped like cowboy boots. In line for the Kamikaze, Miller tapped
the girl in front of us and said he’d guess her weight for two dollars.
For three, he’d throw in her age and her ideal sexual position. Her hair
was pulled back into a loose ponytail, and her face was flushed, like she’d
been running. “I’m sorry,” I said. “He’s not usually such an asshole. Or,
he is, actually.”
“So,” she said. “Why do you hang around
I smiled at her and she laughed, which
I took as a kind of invitation. Soon enough we’d discovered that we liked
the same music and hated the same television shows. That was a start, and
things just kept going from there. Six months later, Penny had practically
moved into my place.
By hole number three, the wind had
died down and the air was warmer. Humid, even. Though I could still see
the truly scary stuff off in the distance. Miller was in a bunker and I
was on the green, the first time all day I’d been there and he hadn’t.
The dirt in the trap was like hardpan, with little brown weeds growing
up through the cracks. Miller crouched down to inspect his lie.
“Just toss it out of there,” I said.
He waved me off. “Without rules, golf
loses all meaning.”
“That’s not even sand,” I said.
Miller scowled at me, then he took
a quick quarter swing and picked the ball clean off the dirt. It flew over
the lip of the trap, bounced once on the green, then clanged against the
flagstick and dropped into the cup. “See?” he said. “And here you wanted
me to cheat.”
I hit my putt too hard. It ran right
past the hole and skittered across the green. “Damn it,” I said. No matter
how much golf I played, I never seemed to get any better.
“It looks like you’re lining up wrong,”
Miller said. “You’re pulling it every time. You know, I don’t mean to badger
you about this, but I did go to some trouble getting these mushrooms.”
“Nobody asked you to,” I said.
I finally got the ball in the hole
on my third try. Miller put an arm around my shoulder on the walk back
to the cart. “Think about it this way,” he said. “What were you doing a
year ago? Studying your ass off in that stupid grad program? What was it,
“Engineering,” I said.
“Now you’ve got your own place, a girlfriend,
you’ve got me. Life’s good, right? Why not celebrate?”
A couple weeks back I’d come home drunk
before dark. It had been a slow lunch shift, and I’d hung around after
with Miller and an underage hostess, the three of us working through a
bottle of Jack Daniels. When I came stumbling into the living room Penny
had to grab my shoulders to keep me from swerving into the furniture. “I
didn’t sign up for this,” she said. “You’re becoming an embarrassment to
All I wanted at that moment was sleep.
“Why are you even here?” I said. “You’re always here. What’s wrong with
your own goddamned apartment?”
Penny looked at me the way you might
look at a dog that kept pissing on the rug no matter how much newspaper
you put down, no matter how many times you rubbed his nose in it. She shook
her head, then left without saying another word, closing the door gently
behind her. I passed out in my clothes, but when I woke up later, the apartment
dark and quiet, I felt her absence like a burning in my chest and lungs,
like I’d smoked stale pot or stood too close to a campfire in the woods.
By hole number four the sun had disappeared
and it was raining in spits. We sat in the cart near the tee box, waiting
for the rain to stop.
“You know my dad’s trying to buy me
off?” Miller said. “Did I tell you?” “You’ve never told me anything about
your dad,” I said.
He propped his feet on the dash and
lit a cigarette. “I mean the guy acts like I’ve fallen off the face of
the earth for – what, six years? So, fine, fuck you too, okay? But then
he sends me this official letter all typed up on the family stationary
and asks me to come home? Bribes me to come home? Ten thousand dollars.
You believe that shit?”
“That’s a lot of money,” I said.
Miller shrugged. “The thing you have
to understand about my dad is that he’s way into family,” he said. “Not
family members, necessarily, but the idea of family. The idea of family
gives him a humongous hard-on.”
“You write him back yet? Or call him?
Or – anything?” I was in unfamiliar waters. I couldn’t imagine my parents
giving me ten grand any more than I could imagine them sending me a typed
Miller shook his head. “He claims he’s
sick. Dying, maybe. Like I’m supposed to give a shit?”
“He is your dad,” I said.
“He just doesn’t want some outsider
taking over the business,” Miller said. “And my brother’s proven himself
an even bigger fuck-up than me.”
Miller had mentioned a brother out
West somewhere – Montana? Wyoming? – something about building his own house,
living off the grid. My own family seemed intensely boring by comparison,
my striving middle-class parents in Pensacola, my sister and her lawyer
husband in Mobile.
“You know what he said when I told
him Claire and I were getting married?” Miller said. “Do you know what
that asshole told me? Looked me right in the eye and said ‘That girl’s
no better than a nigger.’”
“Jesus,” I said.
“I think the rain’s letting up,” Miller
said. “Might as well get at it.”
I took a couple practice swings. There
were a million questions I wanted to ask, but asking wasn’t the way to
get information out of him.
“Bend your knees a little more,” Miller
said. “Try to stay down on the ball.”
The hole was a short par-three over
an artificial lake, but the lake was nearly empty, so it looked more like
a mud pit. I caught the ball fat, tearing up a chunk of turf. The grass
and dirt sailed twenty yards, the ball went thirty, then plopped into the
mud with a splat. “Shit,” I said.
“You’ve got to hack away for a long
time,” Miller said. “That’s how it works. You can’t expect it to come easy.”
He teed up his ball and squinted toward the hole. Then he took a slow,
fluid swing – it was like he wasn’t even trying. His ball arced high in
the air, then hung impossibly suspended before falling out of the sky and
coming to rest, softly, two feet from the hole.
“You really know how to take the fun
out of golf,” I said.
“We’re not having fun?” Miller said.
“I can fix that real quick. Just say the word.”
The wind had picked up and the rain
had changed shape. Instead of a constant drizzle it fell now in fat, infrequent
drops. It annoyed me how Miller assumed he could talk me into anything.
“Come on,” he said. “As a favor to
“A favor is picking up a shift,” I
said. “Psychedelics don’t fall within the realm of favors.”
“She won’t even know,” Miller said.
“I promise. I’ll have you all patched up by the time you get home. She
won’t suspect a thing.”
The mushrooms tasted terrible going
down, even with the beer.
“That means they’re good,” Miller said.
He couldn’t stop smiling. “Oh, and give me your watch,” he said. “Concrete
time has the potential to freak a person out.”
We sat in the cart for a few minutes,
neither of us talking. The rain had stopped momentarily. The sky looked
like a dull nickel.
“It’s only a short drive,” I said.
“Going down there for a day or two wouldn’t commit you to anything.”
“Why don’t you let me worry about me?”
“Look,” I said. “My dad’s an asshole
sometimes, too, you know? But if he was about to die…”
“If he really is dying,” Miller said.
“Still,” I said.
I switched to range balls, something
I did when I got tired of losing the ones I’d paid for. Every now and then,
a little fluttering in my stomach crept up through my chest and down my
arms. It wasn’t much, and as soon as it passed I’d wonder if I imagined
“You sure these are good?” I said.
“Who’d you buy from?”
Miller took his time lining up his
approach. His ball was in someone else’s divot, but he didn’t move it.
He looked like an exam-taker trying to remember an important date. “The
main thing,” he said, “is patience.”
“Remember that time we got bunk acid
off Rafferty and you chased him down the block till he gave the money back?
God, the look on his face. He thought you were ready to kill him.”
Miller closed his eyes, then opened
them again. “The main thing is not to get too excited,” he said.
I watched as his ball rose and rose,
then dropped onto the front edge of the green and released toward the hole.
“You’re, like, tremendously excellent
at this,” I said. “Maybe you should think about golf for a living.”
Miller strolled to the cart and put
the club back in his bag. “Chasing a little white ball around, wearing
old-man slacks?” he said. “That’s not a job. It’s laughable.”
“You’re a bartender,” I said.
“People need drinks,” he said. “I give
them drinks. I perform a service, which means I’m a valuable member of
the community. Who needs to watch grown men play golf? It’s extraneous.”
“I think maybe those mushrooms are
kicking in,” I said.
Miller closed his eyes, pressed his
lips together and hummed.
I stared at my ball and tried to imagine
how I was supposed to get it all the way down the fairway with just this
skinny metal stick. “Whoever invented this game was fucked in the head,”
“Deep breaths,” Miller called from
the cart. “Concentrate. But don’t concentrate. Meditate over the ball.”
“Seriously,” I said. “Who thought
this up as something to do?”
“You’re the Buddha,” Miller said. “You
do by not doing. You have achieved perfect harmony.”
“You’re not helping,” I said. I took
a slow backswing, bringing my hands up around my shoulders. Then I tried
to sweep the ball in the direction of the green. But the ball glanced off
the face of the club and shot off into the woods.
“You’re Mohammed,” Miller said. “You’re
Moses in the desert. You’re whoever that guy is who started Mormonism.
You’re Keith Fucking Moon.”
“It’s too late,” I said. I climbed
into the cart and swiped one of Miller’s cigarettes. I didn’t usually smoke,
but my hands were begging for something to do. Miller’s eyes looked like
they might leap from his head and attack. “I don’t think I ever even wanted
to be in grad school,” I said. “Or, I did, but then I didn’t anymore. It’s
funny. Like, maybe it was just a thing to do, you know? Like med school
or law school.” I tried to blow smoke rings, but they came out as puffy,
formless clouds. “Lawyer,” I said. “That’s a funny word, right? Law. Yer.
Law-yer? Hey, so, what’s the family business anyway? You never said.”
Miller scowled. “Envelopes,” he said.
“Envelopes?” I said. “No shit? I mean,
nothing personal, but that’s absurd.”
“I think I need you to be quiet for
a minute,” Miller said.
“Hey, wait, though,” I said. “What
about that stuff you took earlier?”
“I’m serious,” Miller said. “You’re
stressing me out.”
The wind moved through the trees like
an invisible hand. I closed my eyes and watched colors spring up and form
into shapes. I heard Miller say “whoa,” then a few seconds later “hey now.”
I finally opened my eyes again. The
sky had gone darker, all blacks and grays and purples. Miller was bobbing
his head to some bit of music only he could hear.
“It looks like a painting of the Last
Days out here,” I said.
“Hey now all you sinners,” Miller said.
“Put your lights on.”
“That’s from a song, right?”
Miller shook his head.
“I’m pretty sure it is,” I said.
“Shhh,” Miller said.
Everything was perfectly still. I heard
someone curse maybe two fairways over. Miller held two fingers to his lips
and whistled, like a bird call. The sky opened up, all of a sudden, and
there was water everywhere. Within seconds we were drenched.
Miller stared at his fingers, laughing.
“Shit,” he said. “Wow.”
We had to yell at each other over the
sounds of the storm. The ground shook like the earth cleaving apart. There
was lightning everywhere.
“The low shall be made high,” Miller
said. “The drunk shall be made sober. The fat kids shall inherit the earth.”
“These are really strong,” I said.
“Our flesh won’t push through the troposphere,”
Miller said. “We’ll burn up on re-entry.”
“Maybe we should drive back,” I said,
though I had no idea which direction that was. “Give me another cigarette.”
“When the end-times come, the sheep
will line up for slaughter but be saved,” Miller said. “Hamburgers will
come back to life. The asshole envelope-makers of the world will be taken
out back and shot.”
“You’re kind of freaking me out,” I
Everything had taken on a sinister
edge. The high-pitched wail of the wind, the stinging rain like shards
of glass. The trees waved their multiple flailing arms in patterns of warning.
I remembered this recurring nightmare from my adolescence, a dark-eyed
Jesus descending through a sky the color of plum flesh. He held up his
fists like a bare-knuckle boxer, daring me to throw the first punch. Only
through me shall you enter the kingdom, motherfucker.
There was a rustling from somewhere
behind me, a clanking of metal on metal. Miller had gotten out of the cart
and was digging around in his golf bag. I turned around but he was just
a shadow moving among the gathering darkness. “What the hell are you doing?”
A flash pierced the black sky and Miller’s
face lit up like a photo negative. He was smiling so wide it looked like
his mouth had devoured the rest of him.
“None of this makes any sense,” I said.
“It’s like the juice is everywhere,”
Miller said. “It’s like the Discovery Channel come to life. It’s like someone
just flipped the fucking switch.”
Miller ran out onto the fairway and
splashed around in the puddles. He swung the club over his head like a
psychotic caveman. In the dark seconds between flashes of lightning, he
“Miller!” I shouted. “Seriously!”
I could feel the electricity thrum
through my fingers. If I’d touched something dry and brittle, it would
have burst into flames. I tried counting between the thunder and the lightning
to see how close it was, but I couldn’t remember whether you counted normally
or added Mississippis. And did you start after the thunder or the lightning?
I remembered sitting on the porch with my father during thunderstorms,
how he’d smoke a cigar and make appreciative noises, like we were spectators
at a fireworks display.
“God, you’re sinking fast,” my father
said to me now. “And that friend of yours. Dead weight like that is exactly
I shook my head to get rid of him,
and then somehow I was back in my apartment. The storm had gone quiet.
The bedroom smelled sour, fleshy; it was muggy from the steam heat. It
was raining here, too, big drops of rain bouncing off the windows. Penny
shuffled from the bedroom to the bathroom and the kitchen, humming to herself
and collecting her things: toothbrush, Tampons, CDs, tee shirts and pajamas.
“Penny,” I said. “Penny.” For a second she seemed to look at me, but then
she shook her head and looked away again. She began stuffing her things
into a duffel bag. “Penny,” I said. “Wait. Penny.” Then the storm rose
up again in my ears like a radio gone to static. I opened my eyes and there
was Miller, standing perfectly still in the middle of the fairway, his
face turned toward the sky. He was gripping the golf club with both hands,
aiming it at the heavens like a sword, like a goddamned lightning rod.
He never even saw me coming. He groaned
and his body went limp when I tackled him. We went down in the wet grass,
then he snapped to and tried to push me away. I was stronger, and I’d done
some high-school wrestling, so it was easy enough to pin his shoulders
down and hold him there. He squirmed beneath my weight, his eyes closed
tight against the rain, his mouth gurgling and spitting water. I pushed
harder on his shoulders, gripped his wet shirt between my fingers. He tried
to grab at my arms, but he couldn’t make his hands reach. “Come on, you
psycho,” he said. “Ow. Ow. Uncle.” Then he turned his head and bit me on
the wrist. I lost my grip long enough for him to push himself up on his
hands and gain a bit of leverage. He rolled me onto my back and jumped
on top of me. We slid around in the grass and mud before we let go of each
other and collapsed onto our backs, panting, trying to catch our breath.
Miller started to laugh. “Captain,”
he said. “I think I see dry land over yonder.” Somewhere in all this the
rain had stopped, the sky started to clear. “There may be Injuns,” he said.
“If there’s Injuns we’ll have to beat them senseless and teach them the
I propped myself up on my elbows. “This
stopped being funny at least ten minutes ago,” I said.
“Relax,” Miller said. “Has anyone ever
told you you’re too fucking stressed? It’s not healthy, you know. The arteries.
The kidneys. The pancreas.”
“We can’t all just run around with
our dicks out like idiots,” I said. “My dad’s not standing there with his
checkbook open waiting to bail me out. I mean, that’s your big crisis?
Whether to go see your dad before he dies? That’s your moral dilemma?”
“What’s yours?” He sat up in the grass.
He wasn’t smiling anymore. “You know, you can worry all you want about
Penny leaving, but it’s not gonna make her stay.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said.
“You’ve got a belly full of drugs,”
he said, “and you’re still wound so tight you’re about to bust at the seams.
Try to enjoy yourself once in a while.”
“That strategy’s worked wonders for
you,” I said. “What happened with your wife, anyway? You cheat on her?
Get bored? Or maybe it was the other way around. I’m sure living with you
twenty-four-seven’s a real treat.”
Miller was trying to light a cigarette
but both the cigarette and the lighter were wet. He gave up and pitched
them both down the fairway. “Fuck!” he said. “Did anyone ever tell you
you’re like the worst person in the world to get high with?”
He stood up then and tried to brush
himself off, but it didn’t do much good. There was grass and mud stuck
to his arms, his legs, his face, everywhere. He walked over to the cart
and kicked at a tire. Then he turned around and headed back toward me.
I jumped to my feet in case he was planning to take a swing. He looked
as angry as I’d ever seen him. “Claire died,” he said. “For your information.
And it wasn’t my fault, and I’m not looking for your fucking sympathy,
but that’s what happened. So maybe we can both just shut the hell up for
a little while.”
I took a step backwards. “Shit,” I
said. “Shit, I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Miller said. “Just
don’t be a prick.” He looked at me and shook his head. “Penny really is
going to kill you, you know.”
By the time we got to the clubhouse,
everything was locked. Miller’s pickup was alone in the asphalt sea of
the parking lot. He claimed he was okay to drive, but I had my doubts.
Still, it was warm in the car with the heater cranked, and the classic
rock station playing the Allman’s Live at the Fillmore straight through,
without commercial interruption, another minor miracle.
We were quiet for the drive. I couldn’t
think of anything to say except apologize again, and even that seemed inadequate.
It was best to let Miller concentrate on the road. He drove carefully,
taking the turns real slow and using his signals. The sky had turned a
pale, pastel blue. The sun was drying everything up. Pretty soon it would
be like the storm never even happened.
Miller pulled up in front of my place
and pushed down hard on the emergency brake, even though we weren’t on
an incline. Penny’s car was gone, but that could mean anything – maybe
she was getting her hair cut, or shopping for groceries, or drinking margaritas
with her girlfriends.
“So,” I said. “What are you thinking
Miller took a few seconds to consider
the question. He draped an arm over the steering wheel. “I’ll probably
go down there and check in on him,” he said. “I just want to act like I’m
not gonna do it for a few more days.”
“That’s probably the right thing,”
“I’ll tell you what, though,” he said.
“He opens his mouth the wrong way, I’ll bust him up this time. I’m serious.”
I looked at the window of my second-floor
apartment, but the shades were drawn so I couldn’t see inside.
“Let me ask you something,” Miller
said. “What’s so special about her?”
“I love her,” I said.
“Well, sure,” Miller said. “But there’s
lots of girls you can love. You’ll get over it.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think
“Huh,” Miller said. “Yeah, I guess
that happens too, sometimes.”
After he’d driven off, I realized he
still had my watch. My wrist felt naked without it. I stood on the sidewalk
for a while. The neighborhood was quiet, everyone at work or holed up in
their houses. I was beginning to think it didn’t really matter whether
Penny came back. Even if she did, there’d be a day soon when she wouldn’t.
A station wagon turned onto the street.
It slowed down as it passed me, and for a few slow-moving seconds I made
eye contact with the driver, an older man, my father’s age, his gray hair
thin and wispy. He shook his head, then sped up again. I imagined what
I must look like to him: a dirty mess, like a thing crawled up from the
sewers, like a man who’d been lost at sea for a long, long time.