The Eighteenth Hole by Christopher Lowe
Mini-golf, Hillary Joubert
Mini-golf has become our obsession, here in the hot and cold days of February. School is back in session, has been for a month, but Alex and I skip class every afternoon and drive the thirty minutes to Starkville, to Funtimes Mini-Golf. If we had more money, we say, we’d go to the Mississippi State golf course or else to one of the ones in Columbus or even the cheap, public course in Wyeth, where we live and go to school. But, we say to one another, because we have no money, we’ll play mini-golf, work our way through eighteen putting holes, teach ourselves about the finesse of a long, sloping lane.
We pay three dollars each to play a round, and the high school kids behind the counter look at us with confusion when we tell them that we brought our own clubs.
At the end of last semester, Alex moved out of the apartment we shared. Sally was two months pregnant by then, and he wanted to be with her. I will have to move soon, when our lease is up or else I’ll have to find a new roommate, someone who can split the rent on the place, but I haven’t yet started packing any of my things or looking for someone new. I wonder sometimes if Alex and Sally could just move in with me, if we could raise the child to call me Uncle Coop and if one day we could sit around, watching the kid, whose sex is still a mystery, and drinking margaritas and electric lemonade and beer and talking about the good times we used to have.
The eighteenth hole at Funtimes is a bastard. A long stretch of green, it’s twice as long as any of the other holes. At the end, there is a curved rise that cuts right, keeping the cup and flag from being a straight shot from the tee box. Other holes have curves too, but there is almost always a trick, a shift along the border, a quick-hop hill that will sling your ball into the cup. We haven’t yet found the trick for the eighteenth, no matter how we try.
The weather changes daily, going from humid 80’s to dank, wet 30’s. There is no warning, and the weathermen seem stumped, as they always do at this time of year, unable to predict what will come next. We bring jackets and t-shirts with us, in a duffel bag in the back of Alex’s truck. Some days, we have to change in the middle of a round.
At eighteen, Alex curses under his breath each time his ball dribbles back down the rise, pinging off the metal rails that border the lane. Sometimes, he scrunches his brow, and I imagine that he is willing the ball up the rise, around the curve, and into the hole. “Shitfire,” he says, quietly. “Motherfucker.”
Last Fall, before the pregnancy, Alex and I watched college football on weekends, and nothing but ESPN from Sunday to Friday. He is, and claims he has always been, an Ole Miss fan. I am of the tribe of ‘Bama, a disciple of the Bear and the Tide. We find common ground here, thirty minutes from the Bulldogs of Mississippi State.
I introduced them, Alex and Sally. I’d met her on campus, and Alex was my roommate. When we ran into her and her friends at The Front Porch Bar, I ushered him over, told her that he was the owner’s nephew, told her that he could get them free drinks. Alex mumbled something and moved toward the bar. “He’s shy,” I told Sally.
He was ordering drinks from Gavin, his uncle, when Sally moved into an open spot next to him and let her hand rest on his forearm.
Sally was still dating someone at the time, a guy from her high school back in Fayette. I didn’t know then that it would take months for her to extract herself from him. That didn’t seem to matter back then, when we were all freshmen. Everyone was still weighted down by someone back home. Later, Alex and Sally realized that they had classes together, though they’d never spoken, never really noticed one another. They began to study together, to watch movies in her dorm room, and to flirt. That first night, when Sally stood hip-to-hip with him at the bar, I could see their future together, could tell that I’d set it in motion well, that she wasn’t just letting her fingertips ramble along his arm for nothing.
Last summer we all went down to Ft. Walton Beach for a few days. We got a big room, with a mini-kitchen and a bedroom for Alex and Sally and a fold-out for me. Our patio faced the road instead of the beach, but you could still sit out there and smell the salt-water on the breeze. Beer, I decided, tastes even better when you’re smelling salt-water. I decided that ice cold yellow in a clear bottle is the color of summer. I made many proclamations and decisions about beer those few days, and they felt profound each time, as if I’d discovered some secret.
During the daytime we’d go sit on the beach with a keg of beer buried in the sand to keep it cold. We burned under the sun and handed out go-cups of beer to anyone who wanted some. In the afternoons, Alex and Sally went back to the room to make love. I sat on the beach, letting my skin turn more and more pink, feeling the U.V. sting on my already burned skin. I brought books of poetry with me to the beach, knowing that I’d have time to read while Alex and Sally were gone. I read and re-read James Wright and David Bottoms and Hart Crane, scanning their lines, looking for glimmers of truth. Some afternoons, when I was out of sunscreen, I poured beer over my chest and arms, letting it dribble out of the tap a little at a time, covering me with cool, popping bubbles.
All the other kids our age went to clubs at night, but we stayed in, just me and Alex and Sally, drinking tequila and margaritas and beer that we kept cold by making the little in-room washing machine into a cooler. Mostly, we played card games, Presidents and Assholes, Circle of Death, Shithead. Sometimes we put Alex’s radio on and took turns dancing with Sally, dancing to the slow songs and if I’d had enough beer dancing to the fast ones, too.
I remember walking down the beach with Alex our last night in Ft. Walton. Sally was in the room, already gone to bed. We were drunk, both of us, and I can’t remember our conversation, but I do remember that at the time, it seemed like we figured everything out, figured out our lives and the world, figured out women and Sally and the future. At some point, Alex walked out into the water. I sat in the sand and watched him go. When he was chest deep, I hollered for him to come back, afraid that the undertow would tip him, suck him out into the warm, black surf. From the beach I could hear him yelling at me, telling me that I didn’t understand.
“What?” I yelled back.
“It’s beautiful out here.”
“Come back,” I said, standing. I walked out to the edge of the ocean, and he waved for me to come out to him, but I stood where I was, letting the water work over my feet. After a time, he walked back in. I remember him going to join Sally in their bed, and me going out to the balcony, where I sat on the molded plastic hotel furniture, waiting for the sun to come up, feeling like we’d accomplished something. Now, I recall the sound of the ocean billowing toward us like the slow breathing of some still-sleeping animal.
We have plans, Alex and I, to go to Alabama’s spring game in Tuscaloosa. I have told him that it is a true experience, a moment he won’t forget. I’ve told him that Bryant-Denny Stadium is the promised land. Sally, an Alabama girl herself, has tried to tell him this as well, though she doesn’t joke about football as much as she once did.
Alex doesn’t understand the importance of a spring game in Alabama. Being from Mississippi, he doesn’t comprehend the necessity. After all, Ole Miss draws twenty or thirty thousand in the spring. Alabama brings in nearly a hundred. I have tried to show him that watching the spring game is like seeing the future, that when you sit in the stands and watch your offense go for the first time, you can stop questioning, can picture the tight, perfect passes that will be thrown into the hands of open receivers in just a few months, in the chill of the fall. I have tried to show him that when it comes to the future, we need every chance we get.
I imagine us, beers in go-cups, walking through those great long parking lots filled with RVs and trailers, stopping now and again to mooch some bar-b-que, some burgers or chicken. I imagine us in the stadium, the weather full on hot, passing between us a pint of Jack, the smell of whiskey, hotdogs, and the sweat of 90,000 fans filling us with optimism.
As a child, I dreamed of playing for Alabama. I practiced my three-point stance in the yard with my father, and at night, when I went to bed, the last thing I saw was the signed picture of Bear Bryant that my parents got me five years before I was born. They knew my name, even then, even when I wasn’t yet born. To Cooper James, the picture reads, A little ‘Bama boy and future lineman for me, Coach Bryant.
Sometimes, I wonder how they knew I would be who I am, how they knew that I’d be big enough to be a lineman. My parents are small, my father a full five inches shorter than me and slender, but still the picture insists that I would one day grow into the man that I am.
On occasion, I will look at the picture and wonder what the Bear thought, signing it. He was a year from retirement. A year from death. Did he believe then, so close to the end, that he would one day coach me, or was he, by that point, going through the motions?
Alex tells me that Sally is beginning to show. He tells me that at night, when they sleep in her bed, he runs his hands over her stomach and can imagine the child that is growing inside her. He tells me that he can picture the ears, Sally’s ears only smaller, growing on the child’s head. He can imagine the swirls and loops of flesh as they form. He wonders if the child has fingerprints yet, if those lines have risen even now, even on the unformed fingers, lending the baby some measure of identity. When he tells me these things, I ask him what they’ll do for money, what they’ll do to raise their child. He shrugs usually, and sighs, says something about Sally graduating in a year, something about his uncle hiring him on part time. I never ask him how strong his certainty is that things will work out.
We all went to Starkville for the Egg Bowl a few months ago. I let Alex buy me an Ole Miss shirt, which I wore grudgingly, promising the picture of the Bear on my bedside table that it was only for a day, only for a game.
Our seats were nose-bleeds, far up in the visitor section of Davis-Wade stadium. Sally sent Alex down the steps for hotdogs and nachos and cokes between each quarter. Climbing back to us, he had to balance the various containers of food and drink, cradling cups and trays, cheese and ketchup smearing his shirt, but he said nothing, just kept going back for more, until, finally, his blue Ole Miss shirt was spattered abstractly with condiments of all varieties.
In the fourth, State up by twenty, Sally got queasy and we left. In Sally’s little car, on the drive back to Wyeth, Alex turned to me from behind the wheel and said, “My dad was a State fan, you know.” I think maybe he was trying to salvage something from the day.
When Alex’s father died two years ago, I went home with him for the funeral. The service was conducted at their church, there in downtown Jackson. Before, during the viewing, I stood beside Alex while people filed past, shaking his hand, hugging him, crying in front of him. I hadn’t yet seen him cry, and I’d not let him out of my sight since the phone call from his mother had come three days earlier. After a while, during a lull, he looked at me and said, “Come on.”
“I just need a break for a minute.” He went over to his mother and uncle, who were standing by the door. They nodded, hugged him, patted him on the back, and I followed him out of the room and off into the administrative part of the church. It was a big building, a big church, with four priests and lots of offices. We went down long hallways, passing rooms and offices that were dark, their doors closed. At the end of a steep stairwell, we came into an almost attic-like room, the roof sloping at angles up to a point above us. There were couches, stained and beaten, all over the room, and in the far corner was an ancient big screen TV.
“My old youth group’s room,” Alex said, moving toward the TV. He turned it on, fooled with a pair of rabbit-ears. After a minute, the static cleared, and the channel came through. It was a Saturday, the funeral, and the game of the week was Ohio State versus Notre Dame. We picked up an old couch and dragged it over in front of the TV. I remember the feel of loose metal under the edges of the couch, nearly cutting my hands as we lifted it. Alex left the sound on the TV low, so the play by play didn’t come through. Ohio State was up big, early in the third.
After a minute of watching the TV, I heard Alex start to cry, not loudly, not dramatically. I could just hear him sniff occasionally, his breathing heavier. I kept watching the game, watching as Notre Dame threw an interception. I reached over and squeezed his shoulder, my eyes still on the screen.
After a while we stood and went back downstairs, back to the viewing.
I met Alex on move-in day for our dorm, freshman year in Wyeth. It took him four loads to carry his books in from his truck. He spread them across the built-in shelves above our built-in desks, asking if it was ok for him to take some of my space. “Sure,” I said. “Knock yourself out.” I loaded a plug of Grizzly inside my lip. I didn’t tell him that I had read most of the books on his shelf, didn’t tell him that I’d read them from the library in Millport, my only access to them because of a father who made not nearly enough working at the metal shop, a mother who had long since left.
I said, “You ain’t an Ole Miss fan is you?” I picked up my Mountain Dew bottle and let a dribble of dip-spit trickle into it.
Two months ago, just before he moved in with her, Sally told Alex that she cheated on him when they were fighting last year, long before he got her pregnant. He told me about it later, told me that he’d forgiven her, that he was still going to marry her after the baby came, that they were still happy together. He smiled and said everything would be fine. He took off his ball cap, ran a hand through his hair, patted my gut with the hat.
There is no football now. The bowl games came from out of nowhere, upon us in the dark days of December and January. We played pick’em, telling ourselves that we knew something about the teams we watched all season, but Alex and I were both disappointed with the outcome of the games. When South Carolina lost to Connecticut, it felt like a slap in the face. Now, with the great pageantry of the Superbowl having come and gone, we feel ourselves beginning to drift.
We talk about it afternoons at the Porch, after our daily round. It was a guy in Starkville, a guy at a club, Alex tells me. She went out with friends, angry at Alex over a fight they’d had. She met the guy, went home with him. It only happened once, he says. I want to tell him to leave her, to quit all of this, but instead I think about the baby and Sally and Ft. Walton Beach. I order him another beer, tell him I understand.
I have given up on a hole-in-one on eighteen. When I line up on the hole each afternoon, I give the ball a hit that sends it powering down the lane, up over the hill, and careening off the metal railing. What I understand, that Alex does not, is that it’s ok not to get it in one. I hit it solidly, making sure it crests the rise, making sure it gets in that curved portion, ready for a tap-putt in.
When Alex hits, he tries for a slow roll, for a tumbling bounce over the hill, a precise curve, a quick one-shot. “Shitfire,” he says. “Motherfucker.”
In the early evenings, after we’ve played our round and had a few beers at the Porch, we go outside and sit on the tailgate of Alex’s truck. The tailgate is old, and the handle is long-gone, so Alex has to jam a screwdriver into the innards of it, twist it around until it catches some hidden latch.
We sit on the tailgate and sometimes drink a last go-cup beer that his uncle has sent us off with. Even though it’s early, the stars are out by the time we get outside. As we sit on the tailgate and talk, I want to motion to the stars, to tell Alex that he should be like them, the stars, though I don’t know how to say this and don’t know what it means.
I pat him on the shoulder, tell him he’s right when he says everything is great. I ask him about the child’s fingerprints.
On a Monday afternoon, we get to Funtimes earlier than usual and find that it isn’t open. The window where you pay for your round and collect your ball is closed, the parking lot empty. We sit in Alex’s truck and listen to sports radio. Now, in February, with football over and baseball not yet begun all the talk is of trades, free-agent signings, steroid busts. After a while, Alex turns the truck off and gets out. I follow him. On the little window, we find a slip of paper, Closed for President’s Day. Alex goes back to his truck and pulls out our putters and a little bag of driving range balls we stole from a course in Columbus last year. It is cool outside, so we each grab a jacket.
A chain is supposed to block our way onto the course, but we climb over that, and Alex drops a ball on the little tee-box for hole one. The sound of the ball knocking off the hard plastic is loud, more resonant than usual. We have become accustomed to the sounds of the place, music from the big speakers, kids hitting slow-pitch balls in the batting cages. All I hear now is the sound of cars driving by out on the highway. A slow shushing, it reminds me of the sound of the ocean, a steady pushing tide. Alex lines up and swings.
We have a good round, each of us picking up four hole-in-ones. I botch a couple of bank shots, and Alex is three strokes ahead by the time we get to the last hole. I wonder, for the first time, if there are motion-sensors out here, cameras, that are reporting our illegal presence to the authorities.
Alex drops his ball on the tee box for eighteen. I lean against a fake palm tree. Alex’s ball skitters down the lane, failing to crest the rise. “Shitfire,” he says. He pulls another ball out of the bag and drops it. He hits this one the same, lightly, his usual swing, still trying to bend it slow motion over the rise and around the curve. When it fails, he drops another ball, tries again. “Motherfucker,” he says. “Shitfire.” I think about telling him to swing harder, to power it in. Instead, I lean against the fake palm. Out on the highway, the afternoon rush is beginning. I can hear the cars as they bustle past us. For a moment, I wonder about the people driving those cars, wonder if they know about spring games, Starkville and Ft. Walton, and the lonely sound of another ball dropping to a plastic tee-box. I say nothing as Alex tries again to save this hole.
Christopher Lowe’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines and journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, and Crate. He serves as editor for Trigger, a biannual literary and art publication from Status Hat Productions, and he is an assistant fiction editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. “The Eighteenth Hole” is an advance selection from his collection of interlocking short stories, Those Like Us, which will be available from Stephen F. Austin State University Press this fall.