Beer to bourbon to scotch. Dad always said that it was a natural progression. A lot of things are like that. I look at him now with scotch in hand, and see myself in twenty—five years. It pisses me off.
They called me little Barry when I was a kid; the resemblance was so strong. When he would take me into his circle of cronies their first exclamation, tongue in cheek, was always, “Why little Barry!”
“Tom,” I would say. But by then it was forever little Barry, by then it made no difference. It stuck, the bastards. It still grates on me. Dad loved it, or pretended to; sometimes I wonder.
We stand on the deck of his condo looking over Lake Washington. Sailboats bob below us gently rocking in the cool green water. It is October and October is beautiful in Seattle. Blankets of brightly colored leaves lay napping, spread by the lingering indian summer. Clear Autumn-short days belie the cool sharp winds from the north. The transplanted Californians prepare for advertised rains. We lunch on the scenery. Neither of us has spoken for some time. The silence is broken only by the occasional tinklings of ice in our cocktail glasses.
Finally, turning to me, catching my gaze, “Another bourbon son?” There could be something there, in his tone. The smallest hint of sarcasm aimed at sensitive ears. Ears that have learned to search for subtle barbs, listen for the echoes of hidden meanings.
“Why not? It’s two in the afternoon in New York,” I say avoiding the bait, if it were ever really cast.
He is watching me, searching for clues. “Well in that case, my boy,” he pauses for effect and drains his glass, “we have missed our tee of f time by an hour and a half.” He throws in a wink of those eyes that still twinkle after sixty years. “In New York that is!”
I know what is coming now. Yes, here it is. Booming from his throat it swallows everything within earshot. That laugh, God it’s good. It is sure that everything is laughing with it. It has sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of frozen foods to mousey middle aged dieticians. His super salesman laugh Mom used to call it. My sister and I rode through college on this laugh. It is a masterpiece; unique to the man. Taking my glass he turns and disappears into the condo, leaving me rocking quietly bobbing on the deck, alone with the sailboats below.
I had been without Laura for three days and four nights when I had thought of Dad. She had left saying nothing really. She hadn’t returned, I doubted she would. Left in our apartment with Jim Beam for company, something had whispered “home” deep within me. Childhood scenes began flooding my mind.
Hours spent with Dad on the old plywood table in the basement playing ping pong. The frustration as he won time after time. I never even came close, until the day I beat him. There had been a sense of exhilaration then, and at the same time a numbing loss.
His face that afternoon arm wrestling in the living room of the old house. He against a seventeen year old. An amazed look appearing in his eyes when he couldn’t budge me. The amazement turning to fear when I slowly began to drive his fist toward the tabletop. I can still hear the sickening ‘pop’ when his shoulder had caved in. I thought for sure I had snapped his arm.
All bittersweet memories from an adolescent scrapbook. Reasons for resisting when Laura talked of children. I wasn’t ready to be eclipsed by a little Tommy. I couldn’t stand to be a dinosaur before my time, awaiting their fate.
The phone call had been easy, small talk camouflaged any depth of the conversation. “O.K, son, looking forward to seeing you,” was all he had said. Couldn’t he hear me yelling, “I need you Dad!”
Four years later he had been there when I stepped off the plane. “Brought your sticks I hope.”
“Of course never leave home without my wallet.” There had been eye contact then, a meaningful measuring. I hadn’t wavered. Six months absence hadn’t altered the script, a rewrite was nowhere in sight. Why had I thought it might be different.
My eyes are following a small sloop now, some three hundred years out. A pure white handkerchief moving slowly from right to left. The job billows caught by sudden, knifing, wind dart. Sparkling ripples appear and move rapidly toward me in a ten foot swath, dancing across the surface of the lake. The winds course fills its path with diamonds in sharp contrast with the deep green of the water. It is still moving, now some twenty— five yards from where I stand. I begin to catch the faint smell of evergreens and rhododendrons it carries on its back. My hair begins to blow as it approaches. Leaving the lake, it gusts by me rattling the windows of the condo behind. It is warm and fresh. In the distance receding from the sloop, the glittering aisle disappears like trailing jet vapor. I breathe deeply the thick scent of a Seattle fall. Then all is as before.
He has returned, a scotch in one hand a bourbon in the other. He is standing to the left and a few feet behind. His eyes are closed, his hair askew. I realize that he has just witnessed the same vision. “Ready son?” It is a rhetorical question. I am home.
As we enter the clubhouse of Hilldale Golf and Country, it strikes me that once again I am alone in hostile territory. I am a stranger in a floating crap game playing with loaded dice. I don’t belong here, never did. I am tolerated because of Dad. As always I am playing on his home field.
“Little Barry, good to see you again.” It is the club pro extending his hand. He is fortyish, slightly older than I, but in much better physical condition. At six foot two and blonde, he talks enough bullshit around the greens to keep the old boys happy while still impressing their doddering wives who are allowed out to hack once a week. For him it seems a happy marriage. I don’t like him, the feeling is shared.
“Hello Marty, how are you,” I say accepting his handshake. But he has turned to Dad, my question lost, and is earning his salary.
“I’ve got you all set Mr. Walsh. Your bag is in cart number three. She’s all charged and ready to go..” He stands ready to jump at the sound of Dad’s voice.
Dad is smiling. “Fine Marty, take Tom’s clubs, will you?” It is the type of courteous command one gives to a butler.
I unshoulder my bag and leave it for Marty. Our eyes meet and I want him to see that I am laughing at him and his subservience. But his eyes are dead, there is nothing there. They are the empty eyes of a survivor beaten down by life.
“Sure thing Mr. Walsh. Be ready in a minute,” he says and turns away quickly and slides out the door.
A moment of pity surrounds me as I see Marty as he truly is, a common whore. He is compensated when he sells a two—hundred dollar pair of golf shoes or a new set of irons. Typical of the players that surround Dad, he is useful but under control. I could have been Marty. Maybe I am.
On the first tee the question of honors is moot. I have never scored lower than he for eighteen holes. We both know this. This is his final bastion. We stand on opposite sides of the tee area, swinging a driver and a three wood each. We are like batters in the on deck circle, loosening up with extra weight. We are the participants checking our weapons, preparing for battle. This is the way it is between us, always has been. It seems natural and in order.
He is close to readiness. Stripped to one club, I can see the intensity in. his eyes as he takes his final practice strokes. After a swing he feels is right he stops, and bending over inserts his tee into the turf, balancing his ball on its head. Stepping back he takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. This is my cue to remain totally silent and motionless. I can hear my heart beating rapidly, moths dance in my belly. His shoulders rotate quickly and I am momentarily blinded by a glint of sunlight reflected from his clubshaft. Reaching its zenith, the club hangs precariously for a split moment, jerry rigged in mid—air. Then powerfully, it is falling earthward and I hear the amplified click as it passes through the space once occupied by his ball. Except for the hitch it is a. nice compact swing. Two sets of eyes focus on his ball and its steady right to left journey. I exhale deeply and realize that I have been holding my breath.
Safely in the fairway, some two—hundred and fifty yards out, he turns to me transformed. His eyes are big with the battle. Nostrils flared, he seems larger than his six foot frame as he struts toward the cart. As if sheathing his sword, he slams his driver into his bag and stands watching me, leaning with arms crossed, shoulder against the cart. Imposing is the word, invaders beware.
I can taste the quiet as I approach the tee. Planting my ball, I take a final practice stroke. I feel his eyes hot on the back of my skull. A ghost is swinging my driver. Halfway through my backswing I know I will never hit the ball. It is all wrong. I am a million miles away, a twelve year old playing ping pong in the basement. God, how long can a golf swing take.
Finally contact, and that old feeling is there. We are well acquainted. We have met often. The first time when I caught my first touchdown pass. I met this feeling again when I canned a jumpshot without even rippling the net and when I roped a fastball off the sweet spot.. It is like shaking hands with an old friend. “Hello buddy. Long time no see!”
With wobbly knees I follow the fight of my ball. It is one of those low risers. Travelling twenty feet from the ground it explodes upward about one—hundred yards out. It has a beautiful, powerful trajectory. Having discovered its wings it seems to never want to leave the sky. We watch it land forty yards beyond the point where his is laying. I feel like running up and kissing that ball.
Dad is expressionless as I climb into the cart beside him. Reaching back, taking a flask from his bag, he takes a long drag then offers it to me. “Bracer?”
“I see that Marty is still keeping more than just the carts charged,” I say taking the flask.
“He damn well better!” We are both laughing, the tension has lifted for the moment. It is an old and traditional beginning. We have touched swords and now share the spirited drink. For the past fifteen years it has happened this way, I hope now that it continues for another fifteen. The taste of cuttysark loiters in my throat. It is good and warm.
After nine he is one up. I am playing beyond myself, my clubs feel like magic wands. They have become extensions of my arms, they breathe the fresh crisp air, my blood runs through their shafts.
He begins to falter after fourteen and I go two up. In the cool shadows of the afternoon I can see that he is tiring. his putting has become erratic, he is constantly short with his shots.
Catching his second wind, he has pulled even after we complete the seventeenth hole. Not ready for retirement, he is waiting for me to put him there, if I can.
We rest on the eighteenth tee and I feast on the view from the summit. My clubs are singing a sweet summer tune, my body feels young and alive after climbing the mountain. I own the valley that lays before me.
The flask is passed as we ponder the four hundred and twenty yards of destiny before us. I see him now as an old boulder, the corners rounded by a lifetime of weather. The scotch is flowing in my veins, jumping from my tongue and fingertips. Bourbon is a memory; a bridge I have crossed that leads from beer to scotch. The whole scene is freshly painted in soft shades of green that surround the two men sitting on the tee, one •a younger version of the other. More is being passed here than a container of scotch, much more.
“Laura has left me, Dad.” I say it as if off hand, a piece of news heard on the corner. “I don’t know why.”
He is staring off down the center of the fairway. Dense afternoon light reflects off his brow, shadowing his features. Lines in his forehead and around the corners of his eyes seem deeper, more defined. His gray hair hangs limply into his eyes, it is without luster. There are dark spots under his cheekbones where the flesh has sunken, clouded eyes are seeing painful memories. “It was the same with your mother.”
Swimming in the silence we tee off. My drive settles twenty yards beyond his, laying maybe one—hundred and fifty yards from the green. His movements have become strained and laborious. There is a grunt now as he windmills a five iron. Turf rises with his ball and then falls back to earth, wings clipped. A nice shot, it hits ten yards from the green and bounces twice, rolling within twenty—five feet of the cup.
Bracing myself, I stradle my ball and gently grip a seven iron. Like clockwork, I ease into my stroke and everything clicks. Effortlessly I lift my ball into a precise rainbow arc, depositing it twelve feet from the pin. We ride to the green prepared for close hand to hand infighting.
Dad’s face shows the strain of the outing. Beads of sweat roll freely from his eyebrows. Taking all the time he can, he walks from his ball to the hole and back again twice, with putter in hand, On his third approach he pulls the flagstick and carefully lays it on the outer fringe of the green. Leaning over, elbows out, hands interlocked, pigeon toed with knees bent inward, he pulls back slowly and then drives the head of his putter through the ball. An agonizingly slow roll ends a good three feet from the hole. A tough little tester.
I am crouched behind my ball, one eye closed, searching for my line. Every cleat mark and dimple in my line seems to change the access to the cup. And then I see it. Wind ripples running across Lake Washington. A long curving path leading to victory. A fogline painted along the highway of life.
My pulse is quickening as I go through the familiar routine precluding my putt. Hovering over the shot I glance up quickly every second or two to see if that magical line is still visible. It remains constant like a neon river. The mechanics are perfect, the short backstroke, the level pass cleanly brushing the grass carpet. Following my imaginary path, the white dot rolls in slow motion toward the bottom of the cup.
Unbelievably, it has stopped. One half rotation away from victory. Advancing in a daze, I stand looking at the thin line of green between its cover and the hole. It can’t be more than a quarter of an inch. I tap it in. Walking away, I feel that I should get something for coming so close. I do an extra stroke. A quarter of an inch is the same as a mile. Such is golf, such is life.
Dad has been watching, a wry smile on his face. His expression shows that he knows that it is in his hands now. He must make to tie. Sinking his putt would let him walk from the battlefield with a push. We both know that the house takes all pushes. His record would remain intact. My assault fended off. Grabbing a rag from his bag, he runs it over his wet forearms and hands, absorbing some of the moisture. Slightly trembling hands push back his thick locks of hair. It is time.
Carefully he picks every piece of foriegn matter out of the path of his ball. A leaf twig could be his destruction. Once more he hasn’t been able to budge me. I see that look of amazement in his eyes Sixty years lay heavily like sandbags on his shoulders.
My heart feels his desperation. I am there with him as he lines it up, as he was there with me when he helped me line up my first billards shot. I am in his breast feeling his heart pounding, our eyes sting from his sweat that runs into them. Putter cocked, he is about to take his last golfshot of any significance. Frozen in time, he stands like a statue of a vanquished king. My heart is bleeding.
It is too much, I can not let this continue. You must end this, Tom. Stop it now, you bastard! There is a voice shattering the vacuum, it is mine. It has an eerie sound as if uttered by someone older, more powerful than I. Sounding neither pompous or condescending, it is deep and authoratative. “That’s a gimmie, Dad.” It comes from a vast wasteland filled with echoes of teenage whims.
Assuming his putting stance, curved over his ball, he cocks his head slowly. He raises his eyebrows as he turns to me. His face is shaken. I can hear him thinking. He knows that he can still putt, holing it would assure a tie. Looking at him now through adult eyes, man to man, I can see that it just isn’t in him anymore. It has left, passed from him to me. The risk of failure looms to large, the spoils of defeat to demanding.
I see a glimpse that I have failed to see before. He looks so old and so very, very tired. There is a moment of hesitation for show, then turning back wearily he reaches for his ball. I can see it bulging in his pocket as he stumbles from the green. We breathe rare air as we ride back to the clubhouse, untested waters have flooded the dam. “I love you, Dad.”
“I know, son.”