“Highball”

He’s in the soft green center of the fourteenth fairway when the shouting starts. Steve cranes his head back toward the tee box, a couple of hundred yards away, where a cluster of three men shimmers vaguely in the noontime heat. They are flanked by caddies, one an older man with a gray buzz cut and the other a boy of thirteen or so, who hunches under the weight of his bags. From where Steve stands, squinting against the brilliant green, his ball a white speck at his feet, he can’t quite make out individual faces, but the men’s raised voices carry with remarkable clarity across the adjoining holes.

“Hit the ball!” yells one, a spindly, bowlegged man in a safari-style cap who hoists his driver and waggles it at Steve like a fencer’s foil. The raised silver shaft sends up a bright shard of sun. “We haven’t got all day,” calls another, his voice a sharp brusque bark. The third man, emboldened by the others, takes a few swaggering steps in Steve’s direction and offers a low, loud “Let’s go, for chrissake!” that hangs in the golden summer air with the sonorous tremolo of a concert-closing note.

Steve shakes his head and lifts a hand against the glare. All around him, the broad sweep of Cherry Hills Country Club offers itself to the sun. The golf course, carved across a rolling swale, is undulant and wetly green, and in the distance he can hear the swimming pool ringing with the splashes and laughter of children. It’s a pastoral scene, vivid, golden-hued, and yet the sight of it all—the bean-shaped bunkers, the pin flags snapping on their skinny white sticks, even the turkeys that haunt the woods and strut now and then across a fairway or green—fills him only with sour disgust.

Membership at the club had been a wedding gift from his in-laws, active longtime members, and for several years he’d tried to assimilate to its strange and shining world. He’d swung the clubs, swigged the drinks, slapped the backs. But lately he’s come to hate the place—the clinking cocktails, the pasteled paunches sagging like sacks of wet sand over needlepoint belts. A teacher, he has perspired beneath the skeptical glare of one lawyer after another, consultants and commodities traders, financier after financier, and finally the club itself has come to seem to him like an enormous sneering face, patrician and deeply tanned, peering over expensive eyeglasses and appraising him from a cool remove.

As he walks now toward the still-gesturing men, Steve feels that their own distant faces wear this same scornful smirk. Getting closer, he can see that they are older, nearly elderly, their skin sallow and loose and their hairless legs wobbling beneath heavy, haughty bellies. His resentment fades. In his mind he works through a quick little speech: calmly, he’ll explain that the group ahead of him is still on the green, within range of a well-struck shot. He’ll crack a joke, ask them to give him a break. Aren’t we all, he’ll say, just out here trying to have a good time?

He’s about to speak when the man in the safari hat breaks from the group and saunters forward. “How can we help you today, son?” he shouts, his arms wide, palms upturned. Steve stops. Even at a distance of a hundred yards, he can make out the sunstruck glint of the man’s mocking grin.

“Nothing, huh?” the man calls, chuckling, when Steve doesn’t respond. “Yeah, that’s what I figured. Why don’t you go ahead and hit your fucking ball, then—” The man pauses, aims a look back toward his friends, makes an effeminate gesture involving his tanned and sagging wrists, then turns back to Steve “—Pussy.” He punctuates this last word by cocking a khakied hip and spitting thickly into the grass.

It’s the spit that does it: the insouciant hostility of the gesture, maybe, or the way it seems to echo a brand of schoolboy challenge that even now awakens in a sealed-off corner of Steve’s mind a startling mixture of hatred and fear. The men laugh, and the sound enters Steve’s ears like a blue flame. His veins seem to glitter with current. He begins to move mechanically, blindly: With one hand he fishes an extra ball, warm from the heat of his leg, from a pocket, then he drops it on the grass, turns sideways to the men, takes his stance, and unleashes a smooth, unhurried swing that sends the hard white ball on a low line directly toward where they stand.

The next few seconds, for Steve, are elongated and strange. He hears shouts go up from the group. He watches as the spitter dives for cover, toppling to the grass slowly, in sections, knobbed knees first, then his elbows, and finally, like a shovel clanging against rock, his chin. The other men huddle together, knees faintly bent, arms slung over their heads as if expecting rain. All the while Steve’s ball continues its steady course, impossibly low and straight, a cable strung tightly between his chest and theirs. He stands perfectly still, watching it fly.

Then, inexplicably, as the ball closes in on the men, from the corner of Steve’s vision comes a fluttering brown streak: a large male turkey, feathers fluffed, their arc like a fan at his back, trotting through the long yellow grass in front of the tee box. Steve sees this, and it is as if he has been given a glimpse of the future, for he understands instantly that his ball will not reach the men but will instead strike the bird just behind its pale pink head, that the impact will send the creature pitching into the grass, that its neck will be crushed under the great brown bulk of its body. He knows that in recounting the story later, he will omit the sound (a thick wet thud), the shower of feathers, the twisted neck. He knows he will be suspended from the club, indefinitely, perhaps for life, and that his father-in-law, Gary, a thin humorless man with unmoving hair, will never entirely forgive him for what he has done.

He sees this, Steve does, receives it all in the split second it takes for his ball to go careening into the pillowy flank of the bird, and as he stands there watching the slow unfolding of the envisioned scene, he is surprised to feel rising into his chest only relief, elation, and a strange kind of glee.

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About Tom Lakin

Tom Lakin is a writer from Boston. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Pembroke Magazine, The Adroit Journal, and Lunch Ticket, among others. He is the recipient of Pleiades’s 2018 G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction, and has attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Tom holds an MFA from Emerson College, where he was a full-tuition fellow.