Frank took up golf when he and his wife moved to Lost Lakes Preserve three months ago. He hadn’t broken ninety, and today looked like the day. He’d covered the front nine in 44, chipped in for birdie on 11, and holed a thirty-footer for another birdie on 14. Standing now on the 16th tee, he knew he had only to bogey his way in for an 89—a small thing, maybe, but he understood that the small successes were the only ones left to him. Last year he’d finally been promoted to president of his ad firm after being bypassed again and again for younger candidates with new ideas, or older candidates with more experience, or stronger leaders, or better consensus builders—always someone else. Now he’d finally reached the top of his small regional agency, and there was nowhere else to go unless he was willing to sidle his way into one of the nationals, which would also mean a temporary step backward for the promise of something better. At 58, he’d keep the sure thing, especially when the sure thing had given him and Jeanne the means to build their dream house on one of the last remaining golf course lots at Lost Lakes.
They’d had their eye on Lost Lakes for years. It was an old development, one of the first west of the turnpike, and still the westernmost, since you couldn’t build beyond it without draining the Everglades. It was quiet there, and the developers had taken care to preserve the environment, including some wetlands that had been grandfathered out of state protection. The championship links, the last design of a famous old course architect, featured sawgrass marshes, the string of small lakes that gave it its name, and a necklace of pine woods separating the course from the houses. That’s what made a twilight round so tranquil—with the houses barely visible through the trees, Frank felt alone and at peace, and there were no elderly couples or lumbering family foursomes to slow his progress.
If he didn’t get hung up, he’d have just enough time to finish his round before dark. The day had finally begun to cool, leaving only the summer humidity draped over his skin. The fairways were deep in shadow, and the woods to his left—beyond which lay his new house—were dusky screens between himself and the world. Only the tops of the tallest pines still caught the sun as it slid behind the rain clouds gathering over the Glades. Frank wound up and launched one of his better drives—easily over 250 yards. Shrinking to a dot in the graying sky, the ball looked for a moment like it might split the fairway. Then, fading from view, it seemed to draw toward the narrow rough and the woods beyond it—somewhere in the neighborhood of his own lot.
As his cart whirred up the fairway’s edge, he leaned out and scanned the rough, one foot dangling, the toe of his golf shoe skimming the grass. In the dim light, divots, leaves, and small pine cones deceived him. When he realized he’d gone well past his range, he spun the cart around and headed back, a little nearer the trees this time, half-curses seeping from his lips. He probably had a few minutes to spare, and there was no one behind him, so he stopped, clicked on the brake lock, and got out for a closer look.
If he found his ball and had a clear angle to the green, he could still par the hole; then he could afford his usual double bogey on the huge dogleg 18. If not, he’d have to take the drop, technically okay under local rules but viewed shamefully by the club’s better players. He ought to have hit a provisional ball from the tee, but if he went back now he’d never finish before dark.
He gave it another minute.
A few feet into the woods, he crouched to inspect some pale round objects that turned out to be mushrooms. He decapitated them with the toe of his shoe, annoyed that a drive struck so confidently might end up lost.
Scanning the layer of pine straw, his eyes caught sight of his own house, thickly shaded, its only lit room the kitchen, meaning Jeanne was busy with a recipe from one of those world cooking shows she watched. She’d never been much for travel, and when they’d moved in, she told him she’d make it up to him by cooking recipes from all the places he’d wanted to go. She had a slight fear of open spaces and big crowds, and he’d resigned himself to enjoying their retirement right here in this house. That’s why he was willing to spend so much and to agree to a second story even though they had no kids and didn’t need the space. The architect had pointed out that the second floor balcony off the master bedroom would allow them to sit out there on Sunday mornings under the sloping two-story pool cage and catch the sunrise, sipping Bloody Marys and reading the Sunday paper, a ritual they hadn’t followed so far, but he supposed they both liked knowing it was possible. He wished he could at least get her on the course, if only to ride with him. Her eyes were better than his, and she could be his spotter. Now, as he lifted his hand in a half wave—just in case she could see him through the trees—he heard a burst of noise behind him like laughter.
He turned. The woods were still, the fairway beyond turning gray. No one back at the tee. Anyway, the noise sounded nothing like a ball thudding the ground or smacking a tree. It might have been a squirrel, except they usually kept up a steady chatter until the intruder left. What was it then?
His skin cooled and the hair on his forearms stood up as if he really had something to be afraid of. He stepped toward the rough, scanning the pinestraw for his ball, now with the feeling he was being watched. He heard the burst again—laughter or something like it—and when he turned to his left, he thought he saw something slip behind a tree. The crouching shape of a boy or youth. Another sound, an adult “Shh!” trying to reign in the child.
“Hello?” His voice was too loud for the still woods, and he wasn’t certain he’d seen a person. It might have been one of the tall birds, still so common out here it seemed they’d never renounced their claim to the land. Cranes, herons, egrets. They looked strangely human when they stood erect and stared you in the eye. When they’d first moved in, he found one standing next to his car door one morning. It had moved only its head when he tried to scare it off. He’d laughed and gone back in the house to get Jeanne, but she was still in bed and the bird was gone when he returned.
Bird or not, his heart pounded. Sometimes the body is tricked. The development had its own well-equipped security force, and there hadn’t been a burglary in five years. Lost Lakes’ version of juvenile delinquents wore their private school’s monogrammed polo shirts and tipped over port-a-potties after first checking that no one was inside. Anyway, hadn’t he heard an adult? He couldn’t imagine any of the homeowners in this development taking their kids out to heckle golfers.
He couldn’t reason his way out of a strange, helpless feeling. Stepping over to the tree where he’d seen the crouching figure, he realized he had a death-grip on his five iron.
No one. The woods a dim silence between himself and his house.
He gave up the search and stepped back into the rough along the line he guessed his errant ball had followed. He took the drop with a prick of guilt and tried to steady himself. When he raised the club, a bout of uncertainty fouled his swing. He skulled the shot across the fairway and into a trap. A small, stupid thing, but it put him in a bad mood. He looked behind him, wishing he’d had a heckler to blame. He worried he was getting old, his eyesight and hearing deceiving him, his nerves beginning to falter.
When he drove over to the bunker, he found it wasn’t as hopeless as he’d thought. Only fifty yards to the green. If he could recover his poise, he could knock this close and one-putt for bogey. That would still give him a chance at 89.
He dug his feet in, took a deep breath, closed and opened his eyes in a slow blink, part of the pre-shot ritual the club pro had recommended. He snapped the wedge through the sand and lifted the ball to within four feet of the pin. He felt his sense of calm returning.
If it were always that easy, the game would after all be the relaxing pastime the development brochures made it out to be. He remembered poring through those brochures with Jeanne. All the smiling faces, the trim, healthy, mature adults and seniors who’d reduced their wants to the simplicity of children: a good score could make their day, and, as he’d joked to Jeanne, they looked like they could live forever as long as they had another hole to play. Now he was one of them.
On the green, calmer now, he took out the pin, read the putt, and was careful not to give away the hole. He struck the ball firmly. It started right, then drifted left, finally dying into the cup. He clawed the ball out with two fingers, grinning, having averted a minor disaster. A sound like scattered applause came from the woods.
No, not applause. Thunder. One of those evening storms that boil up out of the Everglades and sweep over the inland communities. Hadn’t he also seen a flash of lightning?
Whatever he’d seen or heard in the woods, he now felt the satisfaction of overcoming it. He’d still have to bogey 17 and 18, something he’d managed only twice. But other than a brief spell of unease—canceled in every way by a nice pitch—he was playing well. He liked his chances.
As the cart wound around the back of the 16th green, he felt the cooling wind on his face. The cart path swerved between the 17th tee box and a row of waist-high crotons that still held their color in the dimming light. Seventeen was a long par 3, the only one without a water hazard, and he felt more comfortable with a five wood than a low iron. If he hit a straight shot, he could get within 20 yards of the green. He’d improved his short game enough that a chip and a two-putt from there was almost a given.
When he stopped the cart, a breath of wind caught up with him and cooled the back of his neck, bringing with it the sound of the turnpike traffic, several miles off, a hiss like the exhale of a distant rain shower. A couple of fairways over, the lake had darkened to the color of an oil spill. A silhouette of anhingas posed beak-up, drying their outstretched wings. The tree frogs and cicadas worked their voices. Perhaps that was what he’d heard.
He should be used to the solitude. And yet he couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. He’d been coming out here at dusk for weeks and it had never bothered him. Why now?
He teed up and made himself relax with a couple of practice swings. When he stood over the ball, he reminded himself to take a slow backswing, to keep his left arm straight, to keep his hips and legs loose. And to not think about any of these things as he swung. That was the trouble with golf; you had to think and not think. You had to turn it off in an instant. The timing of your shot followed the timing of your thoughts. If you could pull it off—if you could shut out everything that might distract you, from a mosquito buzzing your ear to a painful regret from decades back—you had a moment of meditation, and the flight of the ball seemed a perfect extension of your will. If you couldn’t, your whole life seemed as crooked and worthless as the shot.
That kind of certainty had been easier when he was younger. Now, his struggles supposedly over, he found himself less sure. Was he happy with his life? With fewer options left, he wondered if the question even mattered. In golf, at least, you could ignore the murk. The good shots and bad were right there, and you knew immediately, sometimes without even watching the ball, whether or not you’d got yourself in trouble. When you did, you had the opportunity to set things right again. You only had to hit another good shot. You still had choices, and while you were playing the game, at least, they mattered.
His neck stiffened. His mind wandered. He could no longer locate that sliver of calm where his thoughts shut down and allowed his arms to draw back the club. He kept raising his eyes to the glowing crotons, which seemed too distracting to have been planted beside the tee box. There were six of them lined up directly opposite, their leaves like punch-stained tongues. A company of child-guards in dress uniform, like he’d sometimes see in ceremonies when Jeanne taught at the elementary school. She’d been happy then. She’d been good around children.
He sometimes wondered why they hadn’t tried harder to have kids themselves—they might have seen some doctors, gone through fertility treatments. There were options. But children had been Jeanne’s idea—he’d been ambivalent. Why muck up his satisfying life? He’d seen studies about the stress kids put on a marriage. Anyway, if it had mattered so much to her, why hadn’t she gotten upset? Why hadn’t she pressed harder? He’d never asked, and after a while it seemed a threat to bring up.
He stepped back and took another practice swing. He shook his head. How stupid to rehash these things now, when all he wanted to care about was his golf score.
He addressed the ball. He had to turn off his thoughts and hit this tee shot straight. It would be dark soon. The rain clouds were piling up into the dimming sky, casting a deep yellow tint over the course, the last color of the day. He wanted to do this one thing, to feel this small sense of accomplishment that would silence his somber doubts. The brochures were right: it really was that simple.
He relaxed his knees. He took a breath, opened and closed his eyes, thought about his swing, then tried not to. He drew his club back and coiled his torso, paused at the top. His hands felt unsteady. On the downswing, a cry—was it a bird?—threw him off, and he snap-hooked his shot into the trees. The ball struck two pines, then rolled back to the front slope of the tee.
He shoved the head of his five-wood against the turf and stared at the crotons, where the noise seemed to have sprung.
“Da,” he heard. A small voice, an exhale, barely a whisper.
After a frozen moment, he stomped down the two railroad-tie steps and off the tee box, convinced some kids were playing tricks, trying to heckle him. Why didn’t they run?
He felt the club tremble in his hand, his breath burn in his chest.
“Hey!” His restrained shout withered in the trees.
He lowered his club and shook one of the crotons with his gloved hand, knocking off a couple of long, finger-shaped leaves with fish-fossil veins. Nothing there, and the crotons weren’t bushy enough to hide anything but a small child. He parted two of the plants just to reassure himself. Not even a squirrel.
He scanned the sparse woods between himself and the maintenance compound, its green gate shut for the night. Beyond the eleventh fairway was the lake. The anhingas had closed up their wings. One taller bird remained, a white or blue heron, he guessed, or a crane—the light was too dim to discern anything but an outline. A disorganized flock of smaller birds angled overhead. He heard another rumble of thunder behind him.
Had it really been a voice? Not even a heckling kid would think to call him da. No one ever had. Crazy to think, if he and Jeanne had had a child after all, the son or daughter would be graduating from college about now, starting life without them. They’d be empty nesters, starting again.
He ought to pick up his bad tee shot and head in. He was getting to the age where every minor wrinkle in his thinking augured a terrifying downhill journey; the only way to avoid brooding over it was to go home and pull up the blanket of his longstanding routines—a quiet dinner with Jeanne, a familiar old movie, and a sound sleep beneath the night-long shush of the A/C. A dirt maintenance road cut between houses up by the 17th green. He could take it and emerge at the far end of his own street.
Somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do it—even now, when his only hope of an 89 was to take a mulligan here and play what would amount to a hypothetical final two holes. He had to know if he might have done it. And he was in no rush to get home. Sometimes he returned from his evening round to find Jeanne still in the kitchen, overcooked shrimp snapping in oil and a vodka tonic floating in a pool of condensation next to the stovetop. How frail her neck had become—the age spots and tiny crevices running from her hairline down to the knobs of her spine. There were times he had to turn away before an upwelling of sadness swallowed him whole.
He plucked another ball from the cart’s ball clip and stepped back onto the tee box. He was sweating now, despite the cooling air. The feeling in his hands had receded to almost nothing.
He took one rushed practice swing, then addressed his ball and looked up once to reassure himself no one was watching. He closed his eyes and tried to picture his shot, to erase the image of the snap-hook that had effectively ended his round. Exhaling, he opened his eyes and drew back his club.
The swing was rushed—he’d forgotten to pause at the top—and the ball shot low to the ground, angling up the left side of the fairway in the general direction of the greenside bunker. At least it was safe.
He shoved the club back into his bag and kicked down the accelerator, leaving his first ball in the collar of the tee box. He wished he could take his anger out on something. There’d been no heckling children. Not even a squirrel or raccoon. He’d imagined all of it, he guessed, and he’d let it get to him. He felt like an addled old man, helpless and unsure.
He remembered when Jeanne had stopped teaching. She’d just transferred to the high school after finishing some coursework. She’d wanted a change, some older kids she could talk to as near-adults. Within weeks, one of her Algebra I students had torn the collar off her blouse when she’d tried to send him to the principal’s office. She’d brought the collar home and held it up for him before she broke down in his arms. The collar was ivory with lace trim and looked to Frank like a delicate tourniquet for an injured doll. He took it from her and squeezed it in his fist, angry at what the world could do, what a kid could do to his wife. He’d felt helpless then, too. He’d wanted her to go back to the elementary school, but by then her position had been filled.
That was about the time they’d given up on having their own kids. He wondered how things might have been different with a child in the house. Perhaps Jeanne would not have withdrawn. Perhaps she’d have overcome her fears for the sake of the child. She might not be drinking as much now.
After the Algebra I incident, she began to slip away from him. A few years later while looking for golf tees he found the delicate ivory collar balled up in the drawer of her bureau, and that’s why, when she decided to retire, he didn’t put up a fight, though he knew even then it would be bad for her, that it probably meant a steady, irreversible retreat into the house.
It’s where he should be now—with her, inside, instead of pushing on with his round. He’d already taken a mulligan and a questionable drop. They say that golf reveals character like no other sport. What did this say about him? What did it say that he played later and later rounds to keep himself out of the house until Jeanne was drunk and whatever was said—or left unsaid—between them would be forgotten by morning. They’d become comfortable strangers. For all he knew, she might have wanted children even after they’d stopped talking about it. She might have wanted a lot of things. With a little encouragement, she might have gone back to work, if only as a part-time aide. He’d never know. The time for discussing those events was long past, and neither had it in them to open a wound so long scarred over.
His cart whined up the darkening 17th fairway, the feeling he was being observed more and more intense as houselights winked on through the trees. The course had lost its color now. He felt short of breath, his throat tight, a pressure on his chest.
He found the ball at the left edge of the fairway some forty yards short of the green. Hands unsteady, he decided to keep the shot low and run it up onto the green with a quarter swing of a middle iron.
No time for practice swings. When he gripped the club, it felt loose in his hands, his golf glove damp with sweat. The cooling twilight had brought the bugs out; a small cloud of gnats swirled around him, and he had to wipe them off his wet upper lip. When a mosquito pierced his forearm, his head jerked and the ball bobbed and resettled in the grass. Had he moved it? Should he take a stroke? The light was dim; he couldn’t be sure. It didn’t matter. The round was an exercise in what might have been. He’d make himself finish anyway.
He heard a sound like light footsteps somewhere on the grass. He tried to ignore it. He closed his eyes against the bugs and the sound and tried to picture the shot, then drew back his club a short way, squinted down at the dimpled white globe at his feet. He couldn’t remember what it felt like to be sure of things, the way he’d seemed to even yesterday. Hours ago, really.
He breathed, his heart thudding. He swung through. The ball flew halfway to the green, bounced twice, and rolled, arcing away from the pin.
He heard the noise again, like thunder, or like a small gallery of unruly observers. He shook his head at the thought. It would be nice to have someone appreciate a good shot. If only he could get Jeanne out here, he’d explain the game all to her, and they’d have this experience together. She could at least give him a smile as he strode back to the cart. But to ask her now would be to pull at a frayed little stitch in the wound, and he knew what happened when he did that—she drank more, withdrew more, and then even the little household routines, the empty domestic graces, would fall silent, and neither of them could pretend anymore.
He jumped into the cart, club still in hand, and drove up onto the collar, though cart rules prohibited driving within thirty yards of the green. He locked the brake and traded his iron for a putter. The noises of dusk shuffled out of the woods like fog—insects and frogs and bird cries—and surged over him, falling wave-like into voices and grassy steps, rising again to an insistent hiss, an expectant little crowd. He tried to narrow his focus, to keep his mind on the one task before him, to lag this putt close for a bogey—ignoring the mulligan back at the tee.
He didn’t bother to read the green and didn’t bother with a practice stroke. A pair of raindrops ticked his neck and rolled under his collar. The wings of a large bird passed close—a single beat, as when they leap away from a minimal threat to reassess from a distance. The ball and the surface of the green appeared slightly out of focus—his night vision had grown weak. He swallowed and stroked the putt, aiming for a wide imaginary circle around the cup. He hadn’t bothered to pull the flag out. What did it matter?
The ball started straight then curled down a ledge he hadn’t noticed, away from the hole, coming to rest anyway within his circle, leaving some 2–3 feet. A lucky break that made him feel everything could still be okay. He knew from experience the next putt was straight. He walked over, pulled out the pin and dropped it on the other side of the hole, then lined up and stroked, pushing the ball slightly. It caught the right side, whirled around, and dropped in on the left. Another break. Maybe he could get his confidence back and finish strong.
At eighteen, the members’ and ladies’ tee box was set to one side, with the woods to the left and the cart path to the right, the clubhouse in the distance. He jumped out and grabbed his oversized metal driver. If he could reach the green in four—ignoring the resettled ball, the mulligan, and the drop on 16—he’d have two putts for an 89.
He stepped up, planted his ball and tee, and drew back his club. Thinking of the noise, then of nothing. Thinking of Jeanne, then of nothing. Of the hypothetical voices now whispering around him, then of nothing. He swept downward and struck the ball purely despite himself—one of those gifts of randomness that align with your wishes through no fault of your own. Another three, maybe two shots like that and he’d be on the green.
He shoved the club in the bag and launched the cart forward, ignoring the cart path that skirted the woods and instead holding the centerline of the 18th fairway. He’d have to hurry to beat the storm.
He could barely see the fairway now, and finding his ball seemed hopeless. Something whispered as much in his ear. He should turn around. The round was pointless. The score was pointless. The fairway was only a shade lighter than the black sky between flashes of lightning. He could pull the cart in the garage, tell Jeanne he was sick, and crawl into bed.
He tightened his grip on the wheel to stop his hands from shaking.
A flicker of cloud-to-cloud lightning illuminated something white forty or fifty yards ahead to his left—he’d seen it out of the corner of his eye if he’d really seen it at all, and he couldn’t even say how big it was. But if it were really his ball, he’d be on the green shortly and be done in five minutes. He mashed the pedal again, aiming for the after-image of the white dot.
He leaned over the wheel, scanning the deep gray fairway for a round glimmer. The lightning flashed again just as he plowed into something tall and pale that folded neatly under his cart with a simple thud.
He skidded and swerved to a stop with the vague feeling he was shoving the thing forward with the wheels.
He wasn’t sure what he’d seen, what he’d done. He sat perfectly still for a second, hearing only his breath. The maintenance crew had done some planting recently; had he strayed into the rough and hit a sapling?
No. He’d seen a stare. A widening black pupil-less circle that collapsed under the cart with the rest of the thing. Why hadn’t it moved?
He reversed, the warning buzzer obscene in the pool of quiet. When he pressed the pedal, he felt the right side of the cart raise and lower slightly—he’d backed over it. He slid over to the passenger seat. When he got out, he nearly stepped on its long white neck.
He wiped the sweat from his eyes and felt a drop of rain on his neck, then another. Houselights burned around the course now, steady little witnesses.
He knelt beside the bird, its black eye open and staring, bottomless against the white feathers of its face and neck. The delicate neck’s slow s-curve disappeared under the cart. Several inches down its length, a dark collar had formed where the cart wheel had struck it.
He ran his hand down the soft feathers from its head and let his trembling fingers rest in the blood. The rain, suddenly heavy, struck his arms and temples and rolled down his cheeks. It ticked off the bird’s long bill. The manicured grass up and down the fairway exploded in hushed little pops like a chorus of sighs. Through the woods, house lights beamed from kitchens and living rooms. In one of them, a woman sat staring out at the rain.
John Henry Fleming’s recent story collection is Songs for the Deaf, an International Book Award winner and a CLMP Firecracker finalist. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida and serves as advisory editor for Saw Palm. He’s currently finishing up a new novel called The Prince of Foul Weather. Please visit his webpage at www.johnhenryfleming.com.