An older gent tries to look out for the son he never had.
Derek Berry Thorpe
The course at Eaglecrest never looked more spectacular. The early morning rays glanced off the dew on the freshly cut grass near hole one. The smell of the azaleas wafting over the virgin turf would have fueled any golfer's enthusiasm, and it certainly was not wasted on the pair warming up at the first tee.
Mike Webber filled his lungs with the crisp morning. He twisted in an arc with his club across the small of his back. "Doesn't get any better than this, Danny. Nothing beats being first on the course."
Daniel Frost wore a cheeky smile. He had been waiting for Mike to say those two sentences, and they came on cue, just like clockwork. "No, I suppose not."
"So are we playing the long course today? I feel good about my game this morning, Danny boy."
"Whatever you say, Mr. Webber. Sure, why not." Daniel removed the wool cover from his club. "What was this surprise you said you had for me this morning?"
"Yes. I played with this super golfer yesterday. He's actually the new club professional here. Big shot guy from up north. Anyway, we got to talking about his game and career and all. He's looking for a good caddy and I immediately thought of you. What do you say, are you interested?"
"Oh hell yeah! Wow, thanks for thinking of me, Mr. Webber. I'm definitely interested."
"Great. Well, the even bigger surprise is that you get to meet him this morning. He's going to join us over on the tenth hole and we can play the last nine as a threesome. That way, he can get a look at you and your game, and see if he likes you. How's that eh?"
"Oh man, thanks, Mr. Webber. If this works out, it'll do so much for me to meet the right people," said Danny as he planted his tee into the moist grass and settled over his ball. He swung his club-head flush onto the dimpled sphere and she flew long and straight down the fairway.
"Nice shot, Danny boy." An expression of longing softened Mike's face. He patted the young man on the back and watched him shoulder his golf bag. They got along well together despite their age difference. Mike wanted him to be the best golfer to ever come out of Macon County and looked out for him like a son. The son he had longed to have with his wife.
Danny selected a seven iron from his bag. "Hey, Mr.Webber, how's your wife doing now? Still in the hospital?"
"Yes, she's still in the hospital." He hitched his red slacks an inch higher under his belly. "There hasn't been much change. I think she can recognize me now, but it's tough to tell. She still can't squeeze my hand, though."
"Aww sorry to hear that, Mr. Webber. I'm still praying for her."
"Look... a couple things," said Mike hesitantly. He swung at his ball and it landed not too far from the hole. "What are you, almost twenty -one now right? I want you to start calling me Michael, okay? No more 'Mr. Webber'. Second, I think you're old enough to give an opinion. Tell me, is it bad that I don't really like visiting Sarah in the hospital? I mean, of course, I still love her since she had the stroke and all, but sometimes, when I'm with her, all I can think about is coming back here to play golf. I feel so guilty."
Danny scratched the sandy hair under his cap. "Wow, Mr. Web-- I mean, Michael. That's a tough one. I suppose you don't really have to be physically there all the time. As long as you're there in spirit, I guess it's okay."
"Hmm. I didn't think of it that way. I mean, when I had my heart attack earlier this year, she was there every second. Every time I opened my eyes, Sarah was at my bedside. I guess I'm trying to measure up to her by the bar she set, huh?"
They approached the fifth tee, chatting about NASCAR and the Atlanta Falcons. The dew still glistened from the blades of Bermuda grass and footprints were left behind as clearly as if it had been snowing. It was a short hole and, ahead on the green, they could see a small group gathered. They listened to a taller figure as they surrounded the hole.
Mike set his clubs down. "Hmm, I guess we weren’t the first ones on the course this morning. What are they doing? Is that a class or something?"
"Sure looks like it. But what do we do? Are they going to move or should we wait or what?"
"Okay... this is what we do. We play short of the green so we don't hit anyone, then just ask if we can play through when we get closer."
Danny drew out his club and struck his ball about twenty yards short of the elevated green. It struck a headstone-shaped hazard, however, and careened far away from the target. Mike's ball landed softly to the right of the green and they both trudged up to the group ahead. On the way there, Mike shaped his hand around his mouth and shouted politely.
"Helloooo! Hey, not to bother you, but do you mind if we play through this hole?" His voice echoed from the tree line.
The robed instructor raised both hands in the air and Mike took it as a, 'come on through' signal. Danny didn’t bother to play his ball. He watched the group with swelling anxiety and two beads of sweat trickled down his forehead. Mike, however, played an amazing shot off the green and the ball went into the hole for a birdie. One of the older students had to be held by others and seemed to swoon at his skill. Mike tipped his cap and moved on to join Danny at the next tee.
"Man, what a weird group that was. Dressed in those black uniforms and all. Holy cow," Danny said.
"Yeah, a little odd, but maybe they were from the academy of that one PGA player who wears all black on tour. Ahh, what's his name...oh Phil Mickelson."
They played a few more holes with nice shots from both players. Mike kept reminding Danny not to lift his head too early from his swing, and at the end of the ninth hole, he gave Danny a once-over. He straightened his golf shirt collar and wiped away some sheen from his forehead.
"Now listen, Danny. Chuck Billups is going to meet us at the next hole. I want you to give him a good first impression. Look him straight in the eye and give that man a firm handshake. Okay?"
Mike even tucked his own shirt in around his big beer belly. He smoothed the gray hair under his cap and off they marched to the tenth tee.
There wasn't another soul there when they laid their golf bags down. Mike did a couple knee bends while waiting for the golf pro to arrive and Danny could tell that he was nervous for him. Danny appreciated that. He'd never really had anyone fuss over him like this. His own father had never cared much about whatever was going on in his life. All he was concerned with seemed to be what was at the bottom of a Bourbon bottle and when Danny was going to plow the fields on the family farm. Danny kept telling his father that the land was too steep to plow the hills with that old broken-down tractor. His pops only came to his senses when that dinosaur overturned with Danny at the wheel. They still hadn't spoken to each other since that incident.
Mike Webber paused and cocked his head. He could hear the whirr of a golf buggy approaching. A cart popped around from the bridge over the pond, and burly Chuck Billups skidded up to the tenth. He wore a green and white sleeveless sweater over his tight golf jersey that barely made it around his biceps.
"Well hey, buddy. You made it. Great! " Mike stepped in for an initial handshake but then moved in closer for the one-handed bro hug.
An unsmiling Chuck shook his hand but was taken aback by the attempted hug. He stepped aside and shifted his shoulders ever so slightly to avoid the extra contact.
"Hey... Fred right? How's it going?" asked Chuck, looking up at the heavens.
"No, it's Mike. I'm good, I'm good, glad you could make it, man. Say, that's a pretty fancy golf cart you got there."
"Yeah, thanks. It's custom made for my build. Plus they gave me a new condo right next to the clubhouse. Hey, is it going to rain or something? 'Cause if it is, I'm going back in, okay?" said Chuck, still checking out the skies. He removed his shades and one eye matched his sweater perfectly.
"No, it's going to be a beautiful morning. Look, let me introduce you to my friend Daniel here. He's a mighty fine golfer and I think he'll be perfect to act as your caddy. Danny, come on son, come meet Chuck Billups."
"Is this a joke?" asked Chuck.
"What do you mean?"
Chuck gestured with his arms."Well, where is he? Who are you talking about? Listen pal, I don't like being jerked around. There's nobody here but us."
"He's standing right behind, wait... Danny. Shit, where the hell did he go? I swear to you Chuck...he was standing right here with me just a second ago."
"Well I never saw anyone but you as I was driving up anyway. You guys were playing the course? Where is his bag then if he was playing with you?" asked Chuck.
"Danny! Danny! He must have... I don't know where he's gone to Mr. Billups. He must have got the nerves or something. Just composing himself somewhere. I hope this does not reflect badly on him."
"Well frankly, Fred, It reflects badly on both of you," said Chuck, staring down at the flustered Mike from his six-foot-five frame.
Mike walked a small circle in the grass. "Danny! Dannieeeeee!"
"Look pal. Don't sweat it. It happens to the best of us. You think you have a buddy and suddenly he vanishes. You're getting up there sooo...you know, you might expect these things."
"Hey, I'm not crazy. I know he was here!" Mike bristled at the suggestion of dementia. His breathing quickened and his nostrils flared.
"Forget about it." He soothed. "I'll meet him some other time. You wanna get in these last nine holes before the rain comes? It looks like there might be some lightning too. Hop on. Put your bag on the back and let's go."
Mike reluctantly played the hole with Chuck and hopped on his fancy cart. But even though he was distracted, his ball bisected the narrow fairway perfectly. Far better than the shank that Chuck produced.
"Gotta get used to this dump pretty soon. The courses up north are far better than these ones," said Chuck in his excuse. "So tell me, how are the chicks down here? Lots of divorced Southern gals around?"
Mike gave him his best answer, all the while looking out for Danny. They played a couple more holes and finally on the sixteenth par four he said to Chuck, "You said you lived on the course now right? What's your address? I can give it to Danny next time I see him."
"Uh okay. But I'm new, so I'm still getting used to the numbers. It's a long one... crap. Look, it ends in zero-one-five. There's a dash in there somewhere. You can't miss it. It's right next to the clubhouse with my name on the wall next to the gate.
They rounded the bend to approach the seventeenth and Mike let out a squeal. "Stop! Stop the cart! Ha haaaaa! Look there he is. There's Danny!" shouted Mike pointing across Chuck's face to the tree line. "See I told you he was here! Danny!"
"What are you, blind? Right over there walking towards the edge near the tree line, for crying out loud! Danny boy, wait!"
"Oh, way over there."
Mike, in his enthusiasm to see Danny again, scrambled over Chuck's lap to exit the cart and ran after Danny. But Danny kept on walking, almost gliding, towards the forest as if he didn't hear Mike at all.
"Danny! Danieeeeeeeeee! Wait, come back. Chuck will talk to you now. He's not too pissed. Danny!"
Chuck watched with his mouth open, as Mike scampered like a crazy old guy over the concrete slabs and sand traps. Hurdling over the course mounds and the coffin bunkers towards...what? The forest? He decided then and there that he was not going to hang out with that old schmuck anymore. Heck, he could ruin his rep before he truly got settled. Fred or Mike or whoever he said he is, was going to be pretty much dead to him from now on.
He looked up at the sky and saw that the rain clouds were beginning to spoil the pretty morning. He had one last hole to go plus the bonus nineteenth the course architect added, for who knew why. He'd have time for the eighteenth for sure before any rain would come. He zoomed to the tee and smashed the ball wildly out of play. He was not concentrating as he should have because his anxiety level was soaring. He drove up the fairway and just dropped a ball where he thought was about right. He took one of Mike's clubs that he left behind just to try out how it felt in his grip. It felt good and the shot landed four inches from the hole. He added Mike's club to his bag without a second thought and zipped up to the green on the eighteenth. He tapped in for his birdie then glanced up at the sky once more. He still had a little time left. The nineteenth was right there. A short par three. He wouldn't even go up to get his ball if he missed. He took another one of Mike's wedges and lined up the shot. It sailed high and true and dropped into the hole after two bounces. A hole-in-one on the nineteenth green.
Wow nice shot, Chuckster, he said to himself. But is it just me or are these holes getting bigger and...more rectangular?
A lone drop of rain hit him on his neck and he heard a faint rumble of thunder far in the distance. He cut short admiring his shot and flung Mike's other club into his bag and headed for his home.
Got hit by fricking lightning on a course once before, and it for damned sure is not happening again!
He peeled off the course in his souped-up cart. The clubhouse was not far away and he wondered if there was a shortcut to get to his condo before the rain really started coming down. He made a few quick turns but he lost his sense of direction. He tried to rearrange the new landmarks in his head and... whoa! He stepped on his brakes and screeched to a halt. He narrowly missed a black stretch limo driving by.
"Geez... Hey, watch it you idiot!" as he gave the driver a middle finger salute.
Must be an early celebrity wedding at the clubhouse or something.
He decided to follow the procession of black cars and sure enough, they lead him straight to more familiar settings. The limo turned into the clubhouse driveway and stopped. He saw his condo ahead as he sped past the other cars. He thought he'd have just enough time to shout off another obscenity to the limo driver before scooting back to his parking space. He stopped just as they opened the back door of the limousine hearse to let the bride out.
'Eaglecrest Cemetery and Funeral Services', it read in bold letters across the backdoor.
"Hey, buddy, where'd you learn how to drive huh?"
To the bride in the casket he winked, "Hey lady... you're lucky he got you here on time. Reckless SOB. And if it doesn't work out with you and the hubby, I live just across the street. I'm Chuck, what's your name?"
She blushed and said, "Sarah. Thanks, but Michael Webber is the only man for me. I'm supposed to meet him here. Do you know him?"
"Nah...I only know a 'Fred'."
He walked over in the direction of his gate. He paused to look at the marble plaque at the entrance just as a sheet of lightning lit up the heavy clouds.
I gotta memorize this address since it looks like I'll be here for ever.
Charles 'Chuck' Billups
R I P
Mike had the hardest time catching up with Danny. Out of breath, he overtook him in time.
"Danny, why did you take off like that? What's the matter?"
"I'm sorry, Michael. I'm not sure, but it just felt like I needed to be somewhere else. I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"It's okay. I think you can still get to caddy for him."
Danny smiled. There was a serenity in his eyes that surprised his friend. "Michael, look around, carefully. Do you really want to keep playing golf here? I don't think caddying is in my future. Things are going to be different now...for you and me."
Mike sensed a finality as Danny moved away. "Will I, will I see you again?" He asked, wanting to extend their exchange.
"I don't know. Perhaps. I'd like that." Then he turned to face him again. "I think there's someone special in the chapel waiting for you. Sarah has arrived now, you shouldn't keep her waiting."
Over on the fifth hole, Danny's funeral was just concluding. The black-robed priest rested a reassuring hand on Mr. Frost's shoulder and paused.
Through a quivering jaw, he sobbed, "I never told Danny I loved him. But I did. I truly did and I wish he could hear my words now."
Danny did hear. Words that he'd longed to hear in life, now overheard in death. He crossed over with peace.