THREE ANXIOUS WEEKS have passed since Johnny Foozler’s return to Eastlake. During this time he has been working hard at running the golf driving range left to him by his late father, while still attending to his elderly mother, and seeing to the mundane details associated with settling, with his wife and grown son, back into a town he once thought he had left forever. It is that sleepy time of summer when the sun hangs high in the sky for hours, and when it does hide itself at night it is only for a brief sultry, humid period, not long enough to cool the land it has heated all day. Out over the lake, the airless sky and the dry parched horizon seem to have melded into a hazy grayness. Shimmering heat rises off the highway out front, and off the tin roof of the driving range’s one building, a small wooden shack that has only a single un-glazed window.
In the dim interior Johnny sits surrounded by dozens of empty wire baskets, neatly stacked according to their three sizes. He is using a metal scoop to fill the buckets with golf balls from a large metal barrel. These balls are lined with red bands which mark their inferior status in the golf ball hierarchy; they will eternally be range balls. A large sign on the side of the shack reads: TAKING RANGE BALLS FROM THE RANGE TO PLAY IS ILLEGAL. This dispels the notion that any range ball may have of ever rising above its station and sometime getting to frolic around on a real golf course.
Outside in the blazing sun the temperature is at least 100 degrees. Nevertheless, the line of wannabe golfers is still diligently hitting balls. Dump trucks rumble by shaking the ground. The town of Old Estlake, spelled without an “a” and three miles north of Eastlake, is doing some work on a bridge farther up the road. The trucks shift gears for the little grade just by Johnny’s shack, spewing black exhaust smoke all over the hackers, who do not desist in the punishment of themselves and their little round white and red missiles.
Foozler checks his supply of range balls, all lined up on the counter in their wire buckets, vibrating together from the passing trucks. The construction has been going on all summer. Johnny had thought it would slow down his business, but it has not, in fact things have picked up. Route 39 used to be a quiet road when he lived here years ago. No one ever came to Old Estlake. But now there is a new airport, and a prison, all out this way, so everyone uses the road.
The range ball buckets come in three, five, and seven dollar sizes. The jumbo is for those who can’t get enough. Some people come here and hit two, or sometimes three, jumbo buckets a day—every day of the week.
“Ya know Parc Park, the Korean guy who owns a Chinese restaurant here in town,” Johnny says to one of the hangers-on, beginning a story he has told many times before. “I asked him how come a Korean guy doesn’t have a Korean restaurant. Park says: ‘Nobody in this town knows what Korean food is. Now Chinese food, everyone knows what that is; it comes in those little cardboard boxes.’"
Johnny laughs, then continues, “Any way . . . Park comes in every morning, like clockwork first thing, and hits three jumbo buckets. Then he comes back in the afternoon and hits three more. So one day I ask him what he does in between. He tells me his restaurant doesn’t open until five, so he plays golf all day. I ask him what he normally shoots and he tells me 96.”
Johnny smacks himself on the side of his head in disbelief. “Would you believe that the first time I ever played golf on a real course I shot a 96, and I was only six years old, with cut-down clubs, and after only three lessons?
“My father, who was the pro at the country club at the time, was so excited over my 96 he kept bragging to everyone about it. Normally he wasn’t a very happy guy, but this was the happiest I had ever seen him be. He kept saying I was a ‘natural’ golfer and that I was going to follow in his footsteps and become a pro.
“He was more than a little disappointed when I dropped out of high school to play in a rock band. But heck, I made a good living at it . . . for a while anyway. I’d say I went further in the pop music business than he ever went in the golf business. Although I guess you’d say that with me back here running the range now it means that we have both ended up about the same.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” the hanger-on adds trying to put a bright face on things, hoping Johnny will hand him a free bucket.
“See that young guy down there, the third from the end,” Johnny says, changing the subject. “He thinks he’s a real bad-ass, going to try out for the PGA tour or something. He hits nine jumbos a day, only stopping for a drink of water after every third bucket. Now that’s 900 balls. Well, more like 850.” Johnny backs off. “The sign says the big buckets hold 100, ya know, but I short them a little, especially on busy days like today.”
“Like, who’s going to count a hundred golf balls?” hanger-on ventures.
“No? You won’t believe this. Had an old guy come in here once, a wrinkled, liver-spotted raisin, wearing a shoestring tie with a silver golf ball in the center. He actually counted his balls. Now all the old guys in Florida and Arizona wear ties like that, but up here in the Northeast, I mean, where the hell can you even find one to buy? Anyway, the old fart took a jumbo bucket, hit those, took him a long time, and then came back and demanded four more balls. Said he had counted them as he hit them and there were only 96 in the bucket. Cripes! Can you imagine the old guy actually counting every ball as he hit it?
“I told him: ‘Look buddy, I was watching you . . . you kept sitting down for a rest. You probably lost count or something.’ I didn’t want to tell him I thought he was so damn old that his mind was probably gone long ago. ‘Besides,’ I told him, ‘I saw you go out past the rope to get two balls that you topped. Can’t you read the sign? It clearly says: NO PLAYERS PAST THE ROPE. It’s required by my liability insurance, ya know. Now suppose you got hit by a ball when you went out there . . . in the eye, or something worse. No doubt you would hire a shyster lawyer and sue my ass off.’
“Not intimidated by my harangue, the old man kept insisting I owed him four more balls. He grabbed one of the jumbos off the counter and started counting them into an empty basket. One, plunk, two, plunk, three, plunk. . . .
“Okay! Okay! I screamed. I didn’t want to have a brawl with the geezer. Taking a full jumbo from the counter I shoved it in his face saying: ‘Look, you say I owe you four more balls, well here’s a fucking hundred, or 96, or whatever . . . anyway there are certainly more than four. So go hit ‘em, they’re free . . . on me! Now get off my back.’ He asked could he come back tomorrow and hit them. ‘No!’ I shouted at him, ‘you can’t come back tomorrow . . . hit ‘em now or forget about it. That’s the deal, period.’
“I guess I musta frightened the old guy. He took his bucket to the line and began hitting his driver. People who don’t know how to play always hit their driver; it’s as if the game is to see who can hit it the ball the farthest. I’ve see guys hit their driver about 125 yards, which as you know is not very far, and look over at the guy next to him who has just hit a sand wedge maybe 100 yards, which is about right, with that ‘boy did I hit it past you’ look. But that’s the way the world is today, everyone’s too competitive about things they know nothing about. . . .
“Now the old guy started pounding the balls I had given him more like a penance than a reward. Sweat was draining down the back of his pink golf shirt and collecting in the butt of his green plaid polyester pants. The old fart kept looking over his shoulder to see if I was watching, like maybe he was going to try to sell some of his balls to the guy next to him. Well I made sure he hit everyone of those damn balls, ya know.
“When he was done he didn’t even bother to wash his clubs off in the water bucket. He just threw then in the trunk of his big old Cadillac, then got in front, started the engine and turned on the air conditioner. He sat there for about half an hour or more, apparently trying to get up the energy to drive home.
“He worried me though, just sitting there with the motor running, his eyes dilated, while sweat poured down his brown-spotted face. I though maybe he was dead, had had a heart attack or something. But then he finally put the car in gear and drove away. I haven’t seen him since then; he used to come in quite regularly.”
“I think I know who you mean,” injects the hanger-on, a dismal fellow who Johnny sometimes employed washing balls, and who has been know to sit outside the shack for most of a day watching nothing happen.
“Well I gotta get the tractor and sweep up balls,” Johnny says adding, “before someone I’m waiting for comes. I’m kinda’ running short, or will be by this afternoon at the rate they’re hitting ‘em. Jeez, it sure is hot. . . .”
At least it will be a little cooler on the tractor, Johnny thinks to himself, if I go fast. You gotta’ go fast, I mean I got a cage over the top to protect me, but the sides are open so I can get in. The damn assholes all think it’s a shooting gallery, and I’m the target. I should hang a sign on the side: HIT ME AND GET A FREE BUCKET OF BALLS, then no one would ever hit me.
Johnny has a five gallon pail as a target out by the 100 yard sign, and has seen guys spend fifteen, maybe twenty bucks trying to get a ball in that pail to win a free three dollar bucket. Maybe once a month someone will win one.
One might think from his attitude that Johnny Foozler has a very deep and weary disdain for all mankind, especially those unfortunates who have to work for a living, but who would rather play golf and aren’t very good at it. Yes, John has an aversion to effort, especially productive labor, and was very good at golf once, which he didn’t want to play. Everything in his present seems frivolous and trivial to him when viewed from his past, which had come closer to his original dreams. Apparently all Johnny is doing now is waiting impatiently for what he does not know, parading his future that goes forward though he doesn’t go anywhere, and his time that advances even though he stays put. Nevertheless, one must not think Johnny is bitter. The only thing that alleviates his present monotony is his love for everyone—especially attractive older women.
* * *
SIX MONTHS HAVE passed. That terrorists have crashed two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center buildings, toppling them to the ground, didn’t matter too much to Johnny, who hasn’t been to New York City since his band lost its record contract. He never watches television, and doesn’t believe what he reads in the newspapers, except for the Weekly Guardian, which he gets by subscription from the UK. Although he probably is more aware than most Americans, Foozler has become quite unconcerned with what is going on in the rest of the world. The War on Terror is, to him, just something invented to justify the Republican’s military spending. He has his own litany of grief. To him “homeland security” is keeping the neighbor from knocking over his garbage can when he backs out of the driveway in his pickup truck.
It is snowing in Eastlake. Snow covers the ground. It is that time of the year when the sun is not seen for days, and when it does vaunt itself it does not travel very high above the horizon—the period of the shortest days and longest nights. There is snow on the highway, snow on the range, snow on the top of the shack. There is crusty snow everywhere. It has blanketed the landscape for weeks, not a delicate snow, but deep, frozen. The overcast sky and the horizon seem to have coalesced into a singular dull whiteness.
A car slowly pulls into the snow covered parking lot of the New Old Eastlake Driving Range. It is not a new car, rather a big, old American car, with its rocker panels, fenders, and door bottoms crenulated with rust. A rear wheel drive, the vehicle does not get very far into the lot before its balding tires are spinning in the deep snow. The thing whirs to a halt, hopelessly stuck. The driver gets out, turning the collar of his thin raincoat up against the cold made even colder by a brisk wind. He is wearing neither hat nor gloves. He stands in snow up to his knees, over the tops of his low shoes, filling the cuffs of his trousers. He looks about furtively, like a dreamer who has fallen into some snow white kingdom when he meant to be home in his bed.
John Foozler takes a shovel from the trunk of his car, not a snow shovel, or a garden shovel, but a deep scoop, the kind of tool once used for loading coal. Ignoring his stuck vehicle, Johnny tramps, with drum major steps, through the high snow out to the hitting area of the driving range. Working with considerable effort in the bitter cold, his feet sliding, he clears a six foot square space, revealing the bare, frozen turf. He returns the shovel to the trunk, the blustery wind catching the lid and holding it for a brief moment as he struggles to slam it down.
Foozler tries his key on the shed’s padlock but it is frozen. He fishes a cigarette lighter, small and pink the kind a woman would use, from his jacket pocket and begins applying a flame to the lock, shielding it from the chilling gusts with his body. The inscription on the lighter reads: To Anna from Johnny, with love on our First Wedding Anniversary.
Finally thawed, the lock gives itself up. Foozler opens the door and goes inside. Feeling the stillness almost like a thief, he is grateful for the faint warmth of being out of the wind. In the half light, he slowly fills a wire bucket with golf balls from the large barrel. The balls are ice cubes; his hands burn with each touch. The bucket filled, John slides a club from the tattered golf bag lying in the corner and goes outside. He does not bother to shut the door, which bangs and hammers behind him, breaking the steady sound of the howling wind.
Out in the spot he has cleared, Johnny takes a handful of snow and pats it into a small mound, the way they used to make tees out of sand in the early days of golf. He balances one of the balls from his bucket on the snow mound and takes his driver, the old one with the wooden head, and without any warm up swings pounds the ball out into the frozen air. It is like hitting stone. The ball goes out straight enough fighting the crosswind, and then, at its apogee, as if confused to be out in such weather, dives back down, arcing into the snow, disappearing just in front of the post that in summer would hold the 150 yard sign.
Johnny is cold, stiff. He rubs his hands together for heat, and sets up another ball. His stroke was sure, but flawed. Muscles not warmed up, flexed, were being asked to do something they had done many times before—but not recently. Foozler paces about, his head down, describing a small circle in his tiny space; pondering, turning his wrists over, visualizing his shot. He will try another ball.
Johnny takes the club back, slowly, smoothly making a good shoulder turn, pauses an instant at the top, starts his weight forward, and then throws his full body into the swing. His foot, shod only in low, leather-soled dress shoes, slips on the frozen ground and slides out from under him. Foozler goes down on one knee. The mishit ball slices out a scant 50 yards and buries itself in a vanilla drift. There is a sharp pain in his ankle from the twist, and in his knee from making contact with the frozen earth. He stamps his feet up and down to shake off the pain, and to try to bring back some warmth. With his hands in his pockets, he again hobbles in circles around his cleared space.
“Swing smooth . . . smooooth . . . keep your balance . . . not hard but smooth . . . swing through the ball, not at it . . . slow and smooth,” the snow golfer mutters to himself underneath the wind, trying not to remember the advice as that given to him by his father.
Despite the passage of time, and the old man’s death, Johnny cannot forget. He feels his father watching him, pacing back and forth as he hits, studying his swing from every angle. He remembers the occasional sharp sting as the rubber grip of a golf club was applied to some offending part of his anatomy.
“Keep your head down, son,” he hears his father say.
“Screw you . . . you old drunken letch!” Johnny shouts into the howling whiteness, words he thought back then—but never dared to speak.
His father had always had a curious influence over Johnny, and the relationship existing between the two had been even more curious. The elder Foozler had taken very little interest in his son, and allowed him considerable freedom in all activities but golf. And while he was careful never to purposely hurt the boy’s feelings, he never let his son get really close to him.
Johnny tries another shot, and then yet another, with better results. He is warming, the activity bringing the heat of pounding blood. The sun appears occasionally, briefly through cracks in the frozen, scudding clouds. His movements have thawed the ground under his feet, and ripped the grass. Mud clings to his shoes, and shows in splatters on his trousers where he went down.
Johnny’s attire is not what he usually wears at the range. Under his thin, tan raincoat he has on a dark suit and matching vest, bought from a thrift shop, a white shirt, and a dark blue, almost black, necktie, knotted by a man not accustomed to tying ties. His dress is more appropriate for where he has just come from than where he is now.
Foozler is almost finished with his jumbo bucket. Nearly 100 balls have risen into the air and then fallen to bury themselves to various depths in the white field. Numerous cars have passed on the slick highway. A few have slowed out of curiosity, while most have gone by without even noticing. One car slows, travels up to the clear parking lot in front of Donbar Restaurant, makes a u-turn and returns to the range, being careful to pull into the tracks made by Johnny’s car, but not going in as far. The car is a new four-wheel drive SUV. A man gets out. Stepping delicately in the tracks made by the Johnny, even though he is wearing high, insulated boots, the man makes his way out to the range.
“Johnny! I was just passing and I though I saw you; so I turned around. What in heavens name are you doing out here in this snow and freezing cold? . . .”
Startled at hearing his name Johnny looks up. The man he sees is Randolph Benson—Joanie’s husband. Not the same svelte Randolph, who dressed so neatly in high school that it made everyone think he was gay, but a later version. Porcine from his success, he has taken to wearing his flannel shirts out to conceal his paunch. Johnny figures he and Joanie don’t have sex anymore because he can’t find his penis underneath the mountain of flesh that has become his abdomen.
“What the hell does it look like I’m doing, Benson . . . I’m hitting fucking golf balls. What the hell do you care? It’s not your goddamn range . . . at least not yet . . . not until the first of next month. And I’m not stealing your fucking balls . . . as if you cared about them. They’ll be here when the snow melts, and your bulldozers come to turn this place into a mini-mall. Or you can just plow them under. Most of them are dead anyway. I would have had to replace them in the spring.” Johnny interrupts his screed just long enough to send another frozen sphere groaning into space. “I guess that’s the advantage of golf balls . . . unlike people, you can just replace them when their dead.” He quickly hits another ball. “Well . . . I suppose you can replace people too. . . .”
“It’s freezing out here,” Benson says, for something to say. He rubs his hands together.
“I hadn’t noticed. If you keep moving you stay warm . . . that’s the secret. It’s just like life . . . if you’re moving you’re warm, and alive . . . when you stop you’re cold and dead.”
Johnny hits another ball. His hands are red and swollen. His activity has become a ritual—a self proclaimed sacrament. It is as if having suffered through his wife’s Extreme Unction, the ultimate of the seven sacraments, he has invented one more. His confused, over-determined mind has pared down his emotions, and sifted them through a small-grained sieve, causing them to emerge all neat on the other side. He is performing his own eighth sacrament. He can not speak directly to God, but with each ball hit he is sending his message to heaven.
“I’m so sorry about your wife,” Benson says. “It was a beautiful ceremony. I feel badly that Joanie and I couldn’t go to the cemetery . . . but it’s so cold, and Joanie wasn’t feeling very well . . . I’m so sorry.”
“It doesn’t really matter. Nobody came except me and the damn undertaker and pallbearers . . . but they were paid to be there. Anna really didn’t have any friends. . . .”
“I’m so terribly sorry . . . you must be under a tremendous strain, losing your wife only three months after your mother.”
Foozler continues to drive balls out into the field. He is getting slower with each stroke. There are long gaps between each swing. The skin on his hands has begun to crack and bleed. He has lost the feeling in his toes. He pauses:
“I didn’t lose my wife, or my mother,” Johnny replies sarcastically. “I know exactly where the hell they are, Benson; which is more than you can say for your wife half the time. They’re dead, lying next to each other in Saint Anselm’s Cemetery. Only Anna isn’t even buried yet. They couldn’t get the damn backhoe started . . . too fucking cold. So they just left her there . . . in her box . . . in her hole, covered by just a few flowers. I couldn’t even throw in a handful of dirt . . . everything was frozen. They said that they’d get to it tomorrow . . . maybe.”
“They will, Johnny . . . I’m sure of it.”
“And my damn kid. He didn’t even come to his mother’s funeral. He said he couldn’t get leave . . . said he was training troops about to be sent out to Iraq. It was just an excuse . . . he didn’t want to come. My damn son . . . after all the money I spent to send him to college, he winds up running off to join the fucking Marine Corps. . . .”
Johnny abruptly halts his hitting ritual, and fumbles at his zipper; his frozen, battered hands making a simple task infinitely difficult. The consumption of a great number of jars of cranberry juice has not cured his urinary problem, yet he does not wish to see a doctor, who he fears will no doubt run a rod of some sort up his penis. He barely has his member out before it begins to spray.
“What are you doing?”
“Watch your fucking feet, Benson . . . I wouldn’t want to piss on those fine, leather boots of yours. I bet they must have cost you a bunch of money. . . .”
“Heavens . . . Johnny, you can’t just urinate out here in the open on the range like this.”
“Why the hell not? It’s still my range . . . isn’t it? At least until the end of the fucking month anyway. . . .”
“I meant that you can’t just expose yourself. . . .”
“Why? Who the fuck’s going to worry about seeing my little dick . . . especially on a day like today. In the summer I got young ladies out here in miniskirts, with no underwear, bending over and waving their asses at all the passing traffic and nobody gives a shit. Who’s gonna worry about seeing me?”
The limpid yellow stream sprays about in a way that is not random, Johnny directing the flow of his urine carefully, left, right, across, back again, and then in a long arc. Foozler steps back, like the artist he once wanted to be, and admires the design he has etched in the frozen surface.
“Look! Benson,” he exclaims. “It’s Pinehurst Number One . . . seen from the air!”
Johnny has never viewed the famous golf course from the air, nor from the ground either for that matter. Foozler, who takes perverse delight in being denied anything, had gone there to play the private course once, when the band was on tour in the Carolinas, only because he heard he would not be allowed on.
Benson looks at the yellow pattern rapidly disappearing in the snow, studying it as if it were a course diagram on the back of a scorecard. A golf snob himself, he has traveled widely to play many famous courses, including Saint Andrew's in Scotland, Benson hesitates to admit he has never played Pinehurst Number One. “Really,” he says. “Myself, I think it rather looks more like Pinehurst Number Two.”
Johnny bends over, staring hard at the pattern in mock seriousness. “No, it’s definitely number one. . . .”
“What makes you so sure? Have you played there?”
“Look closer, Benson. . . .” Johnny pushes Randolph’s head down near the snow. “Remember when we were little. Pee pee was number one, and cockoo number two. Now if you look close, Benson, you can clearly see that it’s number one.”
“Huuumph. . . .” is all Benson can manage.
Johnny zips up his pants and goes back to hitting balls.
The clouds are lower to the ground now, obscuring the tops of the trees in the field behind the range. Overhead they hear the drone of the incoming commuter flight, lower than it should be as it searches for the airport hidden over the next hill. On clear summer nights one can see the airport beacon’s flashes from the range. This afternoon with the poor visibility, and ice building on the wings, the pilots will not see the comforting light until their airplane is about to cross the threshold.
Benson stands with both his hands in his pockets. Johnny’s absurd comment has caused him to temporarily forget his mission. As he watches he is awed by the smooth fluidity of Johnny’s swing. If only he could hit balls like this, he thinks. He is taking a lesson. For a moment Johnny is god; his hubris can be excused.
Benson shields his eyes from the frozen precipitation, watching the balls fly out effortlessly, as if being launched from a catapult. Here, on this bitter cold and windy day, wearing ordinary shoes on frozen turf, with swollen hands grasping an old wooden driver by a worn-through grip, John Foozler is hitting balls farther, and straighter, than a man should be able to—certainly farther than Benson can with his new, high-tech titanium driver under the best of conditions. He hates Johnny for his skill, which seems to have come naturally to him, and which he regards so lightly, even rejects. Benson watches enviously, yet he is a man of modest goals. If I could ever hit like that I might even become the club champion someday, he tells himself.
Foozler strokes out another drive. Climbing out steadily, it disappears into the overcast and does not immediately reappear. Squinting into the flurries that have turned into freezing rain, Johnny waits for the ball to arc back out of the mist. Frozen droplets of water land on his viscous eyeballs, thawing into liquid prisms, a momentary, multi-faceted vision of the world that exits as tears in the corners of his eyes. That tragic stillness which always seems to precede sublime events falls across the range. Even the wind appears to have stopped. Johnny hears his breathing, and the raucous explosions of his cough. His arms are shot through by muscular contractions. He feels twitching in the tendons of his legs. He waits, looking up, prepared to receive his blessing from the hands of God. He raises his arms. An unintelligible babble comes from his lips, as if the words have been frozen to the mucus clinging to his tongue: “Aaaaaaaaahhhhh!”
“Johnny! Johnny! What’s come over you?” Benson asks. He gazes with concern at the bluish pallor on Foozler’s face, the icicles hanging like tiny crystal flowers from inside his nose.
Clearing his throat with a great hack, Johnny’s words come freely again: “I did it! I fucking did it! . . .”
“You did what? . . .” Benson asks incredulously. Johnny’s last shot seemed to him no different from the one before, and the one before that.
“I hit a damn golf ball right out of this fucking world!”
“Johnny! I think you’re hallucinating. . . .” Benson says, worried now. “It must be the cold has gotten to you. Let me take you home, it’s getting late and I think you’re getting sick . . . besides your car is hopelessly stuck.”
“You go home, Benson. Get into you goddamn fancy SUV, where it’s nice and warm, and drive the hell home. I’ve got balls to hit! I've got it; I’ve discovered the secret of the perfect swing. I've got the move . . . infinite distance. No one can stop me now. I’m going to hit everyone of these damn balls right out of this fucking world. . . .”
“There are no more balls,” Benson says pointing to the empty bucket. “You’ve hit them all. Let’s go . . . I’ll take you home.” Benson puts his arm on Johnny’s shoulder. He can feel Foozler's muscles trembling under his thin coat, his body shaking.
Johnny looks down at the container, then out at the glaring whiteness. His eyes strain through pupils burned from the freezing rain. A thin layer of new snow has filled in the tiny dots where the golf balls have punctuated the field. “There are no more balls? . . . I’ve hit them all out of this world? . . .”
“There are no more balls, Johnny . . . you’ve hit them all out of this world. Now let me take you home.”
Delighted to find the spot of soil cleared of snow, and dug up by Johnny’s footwork, a flock of slate-colored Juncos, which has apparently arrived from nowhere, begin pecking at the turf.
* * *