My father and I were on the third tee at Wildwood Golf Course when a boy in a red golf shirt stepped from behind an oak tree next to the ball washer. “Mind if I join you?” he asked.
He was about my age, fifteen, although there was a toughness about him — the squint in his eyes, the wiry muscles in his neck and forearms — that I associated with older boys. He no doubt rode his uncle’s motorcycle, even though he was too young to have a license, and had access to drugs and girls. I was jealous of him immediately.
My father waved the boy onto the tee and said, “I had a birdie on number two. Tell me you beat it, and you’re either lying or you’ve got a tour card in your pocket.”
The boy smiled, not in the smug way I did in response to my father’s attempts at humor, but with genuine amusement. His teeth were crooked enough to give him a rough appearance but not so crooked as to make him look like a hillbilly. (I’d been wearing braces for two years.)
“I had a par,” the boy said. “I was putting for birdie, but a leaf got in the way. Stopped my ball an inch short.”
“You sure it wasn’t Bigfoot who did it?” my father asked.
The boy’s laugh sounded like a backfiring engine. I could tell he and my father were going to be friends. And I was right: Over the next sixteen holes, my father told Jack — we learned his name on the fifth fairway — all the golf jokes he’d told me at least twice, but this time they received an enthusiastic reception. When Jack told his own, raunchier, jokes, my father laughed at every one of them.
Wildwood was the only course in our hometown of Sherman, Ohio, that didn’t require golfers to use carts, which is why my father liked it. He needed the exercise, he said, because of his blood pressure and his cholesterol level and his indulgence in the occasional cigarette. After we’d played a round, my father and I would stop for a Coke and a hot dog in the clubhouse — a far-from-heart-friendly snack, it’s true, but my father always said we’d “earned it” — and I would catch him up on my life.
My parents were divorced, and I saw my father only once every month. His construction company had grown so large that he devoted most of his daylight hours to it. But he’d once had the time to assistant-coach football and baseball at the high school where I was now a sophomore. In his fantasies, he had a son who played quarterback in the fall and shortstop in the spring, with scholarship offers pouring in from colleges across the country.
I believe these fantasies started when I was in the womb. The year I turned five, he signed me up for every sports camp open to boys my age. Although I didn’t mind throwing or kicking a football, I dreaded being tackled. Wherever the action was on the field, I stayed as far from it as I could, as if I might catch a disease. I liked baseball even less, afraid of getting beaned by a pitch or hit by a line drive. Coaches were happy to let me sit on the bench, and I was happy to be safe from harm and humiliation. Even so, my father came to every game and was sometimes rewarded by my appearance in the fourth quarter or the ninth inning of a lopsided matchup. He called me a “late bloomer.”
When I was in the eighth grade and my sister was a senior in high school, our father and mother announced they were divorcing. During the “Year of Acrimony,” as my sister came to call it, our parents seemed to forget about us. My sister applied to colleges out west and got accepted by the University of Arizona. Meanwhile I severed all my connections to athletics, even though I knew I risked widening the divide between my father and me. Turning in my last uniform was like handing over a prison outfit. In the fall I joined the chess club and the drama club and was appointed secretary of the English club — an unprecedented honor for a ninth-grader.
My father, who was forty-four, set up bachelor’s quarters in an apartment complex on the edge of Party Town, the student-dominated section of Sherman, and attached himself to a red-haired hardware-store employee named Sierra. But he hadn’t given up on making his son an athlete. He had a new plan for me: golf.
“In golf, you don’t have to be afraid of the ball,” he said. “In fact, the ball should be afraid of you.”
But I was no better at golf than I was at any other sport, and I looked forward to the end of a round as if it were the end of a school day.
So when my father allowed Jack, whom I disliked at first glance, to play with us in our first round of the year, it gave me one more reason to hate the game. Although Jack’s golf bag looked like a hobo’s sack and his clubs appeared to be made of bamboo, he proved himself a good golfer — no, an excellent golfer. No matter that Jack’s way with words was to English what McDonald’s is to fine dining, he hit shots my father whistled at the way construction workers whistle at women.
Jack inspired my father to play his best. I’d never seen the old man so focused, so intense, so joyful. By the twelfth hole — a par four with a creek curling in front of the green — my father and Jack had begun to bet: twenty-five cents a hole. Both of them cleared the creek with their second shots. I put my third and fourth shots in the muddy middle of it. “You’re scaring the fish,” my father said with a smile, and Jack laughed his rat-a-tat-tat laugh. My father had dramatic features: deep-set eyes, a long nose, and muscles he’d toned as a boy on his family’s farm outside of Sherman. His hair was black, like Jack’s. In fact, the two of them looked more than a little alike.
For the rest of the round, my father said perhaps a dozen words to me. It was as if I weren’t playing the same course as he and Jack. They’d blast their tee shots, and I’d dribble mine. As I hacked away in the rough, they stood together on the fairway, conferring in whispers. Jack was nearly as tall as my father, who was at least three inches taller than I was, and he had already picked up one of my father’s favorite expressions: “Sing hallelujah to the Lord of the Links,” shouted after an especially good shot.
The only time Jack acknowledged me was when, on the sixteenth tee, I took a vicious swing — born of a growing frustration with how the day was going — and missed the ball entirely. “Strike one,” he said under his breath, and my father chuckled before pretending to cough.
At the end of the round Jack owed my father a quarter. My father paused, perhaps to contemplate the penny-sized hole in the sleeve of Jack’s worn-out golf shirt, then said, “We’ll keep a running tab. I’m sure we’ll see each other again. I hope so, anyway.”
As Jack turned to go — headed away from the parking lot, which meant he had come without a motor vehicle — my father said, “Why don’t you join us for a hot dog and a Coke?”
I’m sure my face revealed exactly how I felt about the prospect of Jack’s joining us. But Jack didn’t look at me. “I appreciate it, Mr. Graver,” he said. “Maybe next time.”
“Definitely next time,” my father said.
Giving a short wave, almost a salute, Jack turned and walked off into the April afternoon.
“He probably has work he needs to get to,” my father said, “like I did at his age.”
After picking up our hot dogs and Cokes at the clubhouse cafe, we sat on the veranda overlooking the eighteenth green. My father said if Jack didn’t play golf for his high-school team, it was a shame. “He could probably play college golf right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s being recruited.” My father wondered whether Jack played other sports. “He looks like a second baseman,” he said. “Or a scrappy third baseman. If he plays football, I bet he’s a cornerback.”
We were done eating by the time my father turned his deep-set eyes to me. “So, what’s new in your life?” he asked.
Ordinarily I would have unburdened myself of whatever was on my mind: girls, classes, drama club, girls. But I felt a wild resentment over all the time he’d spent talking about Jack, so I shook my head. “Nothing much,” I said. “We should go.”
My father and I played again in May, and Jack met us on the course in the same spot. I accused my father of arranging the meeting, but he denied it. When, during our round, my father asked Jack if he bothered to pay greens fees or simply started his round at the third hole, Jack blushed and apologized, as if he had somehow insulted my father with his transgression. My father laughed and said he used to sneak onto courses all the time when he was Jack’s age. “Besides,” my father said, “good golfers barely disturb the course. It’s the duffers who tear it to shreds and keep the greenskeepers busy.”
Jack laughed his backfiring-engine laugh and shot me a glance, perhaps to see if I, unquestionably a duffer, had taken offense. I fired back a grin. Two days earlier I’d kissed Jessica Sanders, the treasurer of the English club. We’d been discussing D.H. Lawrence when it happened. Golf seemed inconsequential compared to Jessica’s red lips and braces-free teeth.
As before, my father and Jack ribbed one another and applauded each other’s shots while I trailed them, hacking away as if my clubs were farm tools. I tried to think about Jessica — about how her lips had felt, about when I would kiss her next — but my father and Jack’s conversation intruded like an alarm clock into a dream.
On the eighteenth tee I hit my ball deep into the woods and went after it, in no rush. When I emerged several minutes later, I saw my father and Jack on the green, three hundred yards distant, finishing their rounds with tap-in putts. They slapped each other five, then walked off the course as if they’d forgotten all about me. Perhaps they had.
I didn’t bother finishing my round but marched straight to the parking lot and stood beside my father’s Mercedes, arms crossed, until he came along, pulling his golf bag. “No Coke and hot dog?” he asked, but he had already unlocked the doors. “I didn’t think you were ever coming out of the woods,” he said.
“I was considering becoming the next Thoreau,” I replied.
“One of golf’s pioneers,” he said. It could have been a joke, but I’d have bet that he didn’t know who Thoreau was.
In June my father and Sierra spent ten days in Toronto, where her family lived, while my mother and I met my sister in Phoenix and drove to the Grand Canyon. The times I’d felt closest to my father had been on long car rides. My mother and sister would fall asleep, their heads against windows, and my father would tell me stories about his uncles Hank and Sam, who were in constant competition with each other growing up. They’d compete to be the first into the bathroom in the morning, the first to step on the school bus, the first to kiss a certain girl. They played football together in the days before players wore helmets, or so my father claimed. His best Hank-and-Sam stories were of their more dangerous competitions: swims up raging rivers, nighttime hikes down mountains without flashlights. Although their feats seemed superhuman — certainly far beyond what I could imagine doing — I found the stories riveting, and my father’s voice overcame its Midwestern flatness and gained an inexorable rhythm as he told them.
On our Grand Canyon trip, my mother tried to make up for my father’s absence with a book on tape read by my favorite actor, but it couldn’t duplicate the thrill I got when my father paused at a critical point in the story, like a magician about to reveal what was in his hat, and waited until I exhorted him to continue.
Despite his storytelling skill, my father didn’t read much beyond the sports page, books of silly quotations, and collections of columns by Dave Barry. He did like movies, however. So when, in mid-July, he called and suggested we see a movie, I should have said, “Great.” Instead I said, “What, no golf?”
“I get the feeling you don’t like golf.”
I was stuck. I wanted to go to the movie, but if I admitted I didn’t like golf, it would invalidate all the times we’d played, and he would withdraw from me even more. So I said, “I do like it . . . sometimes.”
This was all the endorsement he needed. We arranged to play the following Friday. My father warned me that the weather might be scorching, but it was like an early-autumn day, with temperatures in the seventies. The knowledge that I’d passed up a chance to see a movie with my father — I’d been wanting to catch some of Ohio Eastern University’s Russian-film series — made me feel like swearing. On the first tee I sliced my ball onto the opposite fairway, coming within a foot or two of hitting Father George, the ancient priest who had married my parents when they’d still considered themselves Catholics. “Tell him the devil made you do it,” my father said as I walked with bowed head toward my ball. I felt even worse when, on the third tee, Jack stepped from his hiding place and asked if he could join us. This time I was sure my father had let him know we would be there. I also suspected that he and my father had played on several occasions since May, because they fell into the kind of easy rapport that eluded my father and me, even at our most communicative.
After my father and Jack teed off, I stepped up to my ball, desperate to outdo them. They’d both hit impressive drives, 250 yards down the right side of the fairway. If I had given the situation any thought, I would have realized I had never hit a ball that far in my life, and that any attempt to do so was certain to lead to disaster. I brought my driver back until the head hung past my knees. After a brief pause — in which I should have had second thoughts — I swept the club around and smashed the head into the ball, which flew waist-high in a perfect diagonal, smacked into an oak tree ten yards beyond the tee box, and rocketed straight back into my chest.
I toppled over, and my father rushed to my aid. Jack was more casual about it, but he, too, stood looking down at me and asked if I was all right, a faint grin on his face. The ache where the ball had struck me, to the right of my heart, was considerable, but it paled in comparison to the pain of my humiliation. Tears began to trickle out of my eyes, and it took me several minutes to get my breath and stand up. Jack was practicing his swing. My father, who seemed eager to proceed, asked, “Do you need to put some ice on it?”
What I most wanted to do was fling my clubs into the woods and declare my golfing days over; my father preferred playing with Jack anyway. “Yeah,” I told my father, “I think I’ll go find some ice in the clubhouse. I’ll catch up with you.”
A little later, when my father and Jack made the turn beside the clubhouse, they found me reading a Steinbeck novel I’d discovered in the locker room. I told them I wasn’t feeling 100 percent — which could have described me any day of my life — and I encouraged them to finish the round without me. By the time they reached the eighteenth fairway, I’d brought my novel out to the veranda. I watched them hit their second shots and walk toward the green, where both of their balls had landed. Although I couldn’t make out their every word, I could tell the conversation involved friendly taunts. There was music in their voices, and contentment.
I could have found this scene disturbing. I could have worried that I was losing my father to a more talented and congenial rival. But instead I recognized that I had lost him long before. He’d abandoned me a little each time I’d dropped a pop fly, or dashed out of bounds with the football — in one memorable instance, I’d run in the wrong direction in order to avoid a tackle — or spent an entire game on the bench. Or perhaps it was I who had abandoned him by not toughening up and working to overcome my fear of line drives and hard hits. I’d given up sports for books, whose authors had become like substitute parents to me, offering insights about what was worth caring about and what might await me as I moved into adult life. If my father had brought Jack into our relationship, I had brought Tolstoy and Camus and James Baldwin. And although Jack might have hit 250-yard drives, Tolstoy and company were the real big hitters, their power extending far beyond the golf course.
My revelation left me so lighthearted that after my father and Jack putted out, I applauded as if I were at the Master’s. Jack looked suspicious, but my father smiled and waved his putter.
My father eventually married Sierra, but they never had children. Over the years he mentioned Jack on occasion, and I began to think of my old rival as a kind of stepbrother. I didn’t stop being jealous of Jack, though, and when my father spoke of him, I sometimes remarked, “How is old Jack the Ripper?” But I had my own life: college, then graduate school, then a tenure-track position at Oberlin, a wife, a baby girl.
Two weeks before my father died of a heart attack, he came to the opening of a play I’d written. It was set in the Soviet Union in the year preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall — about as far as you can get from small-town Ohio. My father’s praise for the play afterward was fumbling and uncertain, the equivalent of my typical golf shot. I suspect he was worried he might sound ignorant. His only criticism was of the way I’d portrayed the relationship between a boy and his father: even fathers who had little in common with their sons, he seemed to say, can feel more than bewilderment and disappointment. I thanked him twice for coming.
When my father died, Sierra inherited the majority of his belongings. The most notable item he left me was his golf clubs. Had I still been a cynical teenager, I might have read something mean into this gift: my father emphasizing my inadequacy as a golfer, as a son. But I figured in his own way he was making one last effort to reach me.
My father had told Sierra he wanted his ashes spread on the golf course, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Even though his remains were interred next to his parents’ in a cemetery outside of Sherman, I thought his spirit might decide to reside at Wildwood. So the day after his funeral, I threw my father’s clubs in the trunk of my car and drove to the course, which I hadn’t set foot on since being struck in the chest by my errant tee shot. My father used to say that taking time off from golf was healthy, because you could forget your bad habits, but if anything I was worse. By the time I got to the third tee, I was ready to quit. I hesitated, half expecting Jack to step from behind the oak tree and ask to join me. High in the tree, birds sang, and I began to wonder if Jack had ever existed. When I tried to picture him, I saw only a younger version of my father. Perhaps my father, in need of someone who understood and appreciated him, had conjured Jack to keep him company, as I had found company in the characters of novels and plays. Or perhaps I had been the one to conjure Jack: someone to please my father and free me to be myself.
Before I retired from the course, I left my father’s clubs behind the oak tree and called Jack’s name, in my loudest voice, into the woods.