Holly spots a lucky omen far downhill: every backlit tree in a row of poplars along a stretch of the Port Washington Narrows is clasped like hands in prayer, except one. A single, stunted, sloppily unfurled poplar, unloved in shadows, holds the luck. It watches out for the others; it allows them to be confidently pretty by giving the eye something less to compare them to. “Unpoplar,” as Ogden Nash might’ve put it.
The golf course trees, however, don’t say much of anything to Holly. Coddled elms and hand-fattened maples protected against the harsh November winds that howl down the Narrows like steamed souls passing through cracks in hell, have little in the way of luck. They might as well be painted onto the surface of the eye. Stage prop trees.
“Are you ever going to hit the goddam ball?” Beth calls out. She had purposely sent her turn into the bunker because, well, just because.
“It could be a cerebral hemorrhage,” says Fran, who is sitting in a golf-cart and smoking a joint. “He looks like a froze-up rock lizard.”
Beth concentrates her large and expressive eyes on Fran. “I hope the oxygen’s off while you do that,” she says. “I’d hate to explain two corpses to the cops.”
Fran pats the canister that lies beside her like a little dog that has gone to sleep. “’No worries,’ as everyone who ought to be worried most says nowadays,” Fran says. “Who better to trust with combustibles than a stoned old lady?”
“Tell me, Bethlehem,” Holly says, “why do your shots always end up in the worst possible places?” He then kicks the ball and a considerable amount of sand onto the fairway.
“Because you didn’t think of it first, reptile,” Beth says. She brings a match off her left boot-heel and lights a cigarette. “Consider it unlucky.”
The idea for golf had been concocted that morning in the nicotine and THC miasma of Beth’s house (where Fran now stays). Holly, a non-smoker, had once again observed that the atmosphere in the living room resembled what the air must be like on Neptune. “All right, Your Anus,” Beth had said, “maybe we ought to take Frannie out for some fresh air.” Upon hearing this exchange, Fran said, “Let’s go golfing. I want one last chance at beating the fourth green at Tor-Hill.”
Holly is fifty-six, Beth a year older. Even though both are plenty young, neither one has set foot on a golf course before today. Until a year ago, and even in her late seventies, Fran could have easily wiped the Torqwamni Hill Tribal Golf Course with her “students.” She was as fine an athlete as the city of Charleston has ever produced, but cancer has steadily robbed her of her physical grace. The oxygen canister became necessary a month ago; and, perhaps more telling, Fran’s dependence on morphine is no longer a concern to her physician. She’s allowed to take her pills “as needed,” and her refills are no longer the subject of dispute. “It’s a part of the process,” Fran, a former nurse whose mind remains as keen as ever, had recently said to Beth. “They watch you until it no longer matters to the law. Oh, I know how cold it sounds—but you should remember that an oncologist’s calendar is full of dying old patients. I mean, yes, we are all people, but unless it touches you personally, you’ve got to be detached to do your job right. And you could even say that the end-gamers have your back when it comes to protecting your immortal soul; dotty codgers have a way of crossing-up meds—It‘s not suicide if you’ve confused the green with the blue.”
They had decided to play a round as one person. Holly and Beth were to somehow get the ball onto the green where Fran would sink the putt. Although every rickety rise Fran takes out of the golf cart causes Beth’s heart to drop underground and wonder why she has allowed such a ridiculous event to come to fruition, she has to admit that she hasn’t seen Fran this happy in a long time.
Fran’s happiness withstanding; it has taken three hours and only God knows how many strokes for the threesome to arrive at the fourth fairway. Since that is the green Fran wants to at long last tame, the three of them have agreed to quit at four holes.
“What’s so funny, Hollister?” Beth asks. She had been aiming the ball at the squirrel-infested, bushy rough along the fairway, but had accidentally hit the first realistic-looking golf shot that either she or Holly had brought into the universe. The ball travelled sixty feet or so by air then bounced a similar distance onto the green and eventually stopped rolling twenty feet shy of the flag.
“I was thinking how you can’t help but do the right thing if given enough time,” Holly says. “You’ve always been kinder than you aim to be.”
Beth considers a verbal retort, but decides that The Finger is good enough.
“Look at that shitty break, would you,” Fran says. She raises a shaky palm and tilts it to the left. “I’ve pissed away a good sixty strokes here over the years because I’ve never beat the curve. I nearly wrapped this two-hundred-dollar putter around that spruce after a thirty-foot putt just hung on the lip. A damn breeze would have dropped it—oh, but hell no—God just let the ball hang there. It would still be doing so if I hadn’t launched the fucking thing into the pond.”
Holly and Beth help Fran out of the cart and follow her to the ball, then step back. While Fran takes her time to line up the putt, Beth begins to speak in a hushed, golf announcer whisper:
“Saint Frances of Rome Mary Josephine Bauer Bowers—confirmation name, Bernadette, is likely on her own here at the fourth green due to her continuing blasphemy and profanity directed at God and His mysterious ways.”
“Why should this time be different?” Fran says. “God doesn’t golf, my little star.”
A long list of the items that God also doesn’t do takes shape in Beth’s mind. But those vanish into the ether when she spies a pair of teenage girls clad in soccer uniforms passing by. Beth assumes that they belong to the nearby middle school, and that they’re most likely taking a shortcut. Her fantastic eyes aren’t just for show; they work well, and she easily reads “Stoppage-fucking- time” mouthed by one to the other, followed by a titter of giggles. The comment had obviously been directed at Fran.
How’s that, Miss Metaphor? Has someone played her full ninety and is waiting to hear the final whistle blow? It could very well be that she’s been carrying a yellow since the first half and yet continues to snipe at the ref, not giving a rat’s ass one way or the other that He’s notoriously touchy and quick to draw the red without a legit reason, Beth thinks. “Do you French your foster father with that mouth?” is what she says, loud enough to get it across to the kids.
The girls are no more than eleven, and both of their faces turn red with embarrassment and they scurry off into the tamed trees. Beth often regrets her mouth. Just a couple of little kids drying their wings, she thinks. It doesn’t help to discover that Fran and Holly are staring at her.
“Let’s beat them up for their lunch money,” Beth says. “We’ll buy a turkey. A person could easily roast a turkey in the time it takes some people to line up a putt.”
Fran smiles and shakes her head. Then she makes a facetious show of wetting her finger and checking the wind.
Holly smiles at Beth. “I saw a lucky omen in an unpoplar,” he says.
Throughout the fifty-plus year run of their extraordinary friendship, Holly has given Beth thousands of reasons for her to doubt his sanity. When they were children together on Corson Street, he often claimed that sadness creeps into late afternoon shadows the same way high pressure follows the low. He also saw hope and kindness in shriveled blackberries that lay among their plump and juicy “brothers and sisters” because the failed berries had selflessly improved the beauty of their siblings. Unlucky shadows; fortunate blackberries; and such things contain a special foretelling that heralds the sway of human events.
Beth trains her eyes on Fran. Nowadays, every time she looks at Fran without first steeling herself to do so, her heart breaks a little more. Fran and Holly are the only two persons alive whom Beth cannot recall first meeting. They seem to her as old as breathing and just as necessary. And I want her to die before the thing she becomes at night kills my sweet memories of her, Beth thinks, laying words to a selfish and scared and frustrated emotion she feels when Fran awakens a screaming brute in the wee-hour darkness. It’s an ugly little thought; but according to Holly’s way of seeing things, it will serve an altruistic purpose.
Beth sidles up beside Holly and takes his hand. Fran at last strikes her putt. The putter and ball combine makes the good click that happens only when the function is performed properly.
All three watch the immutable path of the ball, which approaches the cup at a long and steep angle.
“If this goes in,” Holly says, “she’ll live to see Christmas.”
Banner Image: Steve F [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons