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Most Things Don’t Happen

“I need you at the meeting tonight,” Van says.

They drive through the entrance to the once luxurious golf course. A developer plans to convert the fairways and greens into housing.

“I wonder what score I would have to shoot to block the sale,” Nick says. His tone is solemn. He knows such faith in magic is inappropriate for his middle age, but still.

Van’s Volkswagen catches every pothole and block of crumbling curb on the drive down the hill to the parking lot. The car is old and needs everything. Nick, in the passenger seat, extends his leg to mitigate the concussions. Van, the taller of the two, winces as his head smacks the roof.

Nick wonders what motivates Van to hold on to the car. “You’re resistant to change.”

Their understanding, built on non sequiturs and resignation, is echoed in the collision of the course with its drab surround.

On one side of the drive, a mile of fields and woods rises in terraced fairways far enough up the hillside for Nick to imagine the wilderness that once was. On the other side, a congestion of low-rise buildings designated affordable housing leans in on the fairways. A tall, chain link fence protects the building windows from golf balls. Sometimes a wayward shot sails over the fence and rattles the roofs.

Nick sees the quiet of the course. The expanse feels dreamlike. He is here to play a game. Soon enough, the noise of performance will fill his mind, but first he settles into the land.

The course, like so many things, brings Anne to mind. She picked the game up quickly. Some couples cannot play together, but others find their best rhythms on the course. Nick and Anne played as they did everything, bickering and grateful. He feels her absence from a distance, a barren landscape, but he must resist for their daughter, Evie, her young adult life just beginning.

From the parking lot, Nick surveys the ribbons of green fairway up the hillside to a rock promontory from which a golfer could look east to the downtown skyscrapers and the ocean ten miles away. Glades of trees separate one hole from the next. Ponds and streams, soothing for the soul but sirens to wayward golf balls, decorate the fields. In this landscape, beauty is officially a hazard.

After they park, Nick waits patiently at the rear of Van’s car while Van begins his preparations.

“Flow wobbles.” Van’s muffled voice emerges from deep in his trunk. It is the acronym he uses to recall the eleven items he requires for his round of golf that are not in or attached to his golf bag. He locates the face cloth, lens cleaner, and watch, but inevitably his water bottle or bug spray or some more esoteric item like his precision laser range finder will fail to make the trip. Finally, Van lifts his golf bag, with all fourteen allowable clubs, onto his pull cart. He likes to be prepared for any eventuality.

Nick has witnessed his friend’s routine on many occasions during twenty years playing golf together. He knows that later, after the round, he will have to wait again while Van wipes down each club with a homemade solution of chemical cleaner. Nick will dump his own partial set of dirty clubs unceremoniously into his trunk and close the lid. Inevitably, Van offers Nick his cleaning solution, which, inevitably, Nick declines.

Today, however, Nick wavers. His doctor had promised to call this afternoon with a report on the biopsy he took from under Nick’s chin earlier in the week. The call could come in during their round of golf. Nick needs to reassure himself that he is ready to face the doctor’s harsh realities, so rather than amuse himself provoking Van’s eccentric golf rituals, he chooses to challenge Van’s optimism.

“You know the aldermen will vote to sell,” Nick says, while Van is trying to arrange his bag on the pull cart so it doesn’t fall to the right or the left. “The fix is in. It is easier for them to sell the course to a developer than try to force more subsidized housing developments on their tax-paying constituents. Kolodny Associates is buying the whole farm, the tee boxes, the fairways, the greens. It is over.”

A couple walking their dog in the woods alongside the lot overhears Nick’s conclusion. During the winter they have the run of the course, but during the golf season they are confined to the periphery. The dog is an expensive hybrid with fine hair, an appealing snout, and a genetically engineered, aggression-free disposition.

“I’m glad they are selling the course,” the male dog-walker in the parking lot says. He is wearing designer yoga pants and a T‑shirt that reads The Future is Female. He is carrying a colored plastic bag. “Golf is elitist, and the course is toxic.”

A large man squeezes out of the pickup next to Van’s car. He is an accomplished plumber with an abbreviated backswing who’d played some rounds with Nick and Van and once helped Nick salvage his wonky backyard irrigation system. “Sup?”

“This gentleman was just explaining that golf excludes unsavory representatives of the working classes,” Nick says. “To correct this injustice, he is looking forward to the new real estate development that will get rid of all these pickups and vans and replace them with respectable cars and drivers. It’s a paradox.”

“Will I get a new car?” the plumber asks.

“Let’s go,” the woman says to her mate. Her T‑shirt reads I Care.

“They only use recycled water on the course,” the plumber says, “and they use less toxins than most of the yards around here.” His tone is reassuring.

Nick is caught up petting the dog. “Can he still make puppies?”

The woman stops, turns, and approaches Nick.

“The golfers I know are like children,” she says, “cultivating daydreams to replace what they think they’ve lost: something, someone, maybe some picture of themselves.”

“Yeah, well,” Nick says.

Her observation strikes him as true enough, if unfairly so. Nick imagines she might make a good golfer if she could loosen her grip. Someone would have to convince her to relax her arms and let her lower body do the work.

Nick’s wife, Anne, is one year gone, but he still talks to her in his head.

“She sure has your number.”

“I figured you’d enjoy that.”

“You can’t keep out of trouble.”

“They started it.”

“Don’t be an infant.”

He imagines Anne laughing. She had a great laugh.

The couple leaves.

“I think not,” Van says.

“Not what?”

“I think it’s not over.” Van’s expression is serene. Nick cannot tell if he is truly optimistic or simply determined not to be upset by the prospect of loss. Optimism can be its own flight from reality. Or perhaps like John Eliot, the Puritan minister who once built and lost a utopia on this same geographic spot, he doesn’t know when he is beat.

Van cleans the lenses of his golf sunglasses, tinted to enhance the contrasts on the fairways. “Seconds away,” he says. He begins to systematically apply his bug spray.

Van has an uncertain, apologetic air that makes him nonthreatening. People like him and women take care of him. He would be a natural leader, but he worries that even his modest ambitions are selfish and suspect. “I don’t want to be a sociopath,” he has said.

Nick’s appearance suggests wry acceptance, as if he gets and derives a degree of enjoyment from the joke of which he is the butt. They knew each other when they were renegades, freaks, “long-hairs,” but now they are happy for the opportunity to hide their baldness under their golf caps. Van introduced Nick to the game. They have a regular foursome at 8:20 a.m., but two of their usual group will not be playing.

“Is it just the two of us today?” Van asks.

“I saw people waiting in the pro shop.” Nick is marking each of his golf balls with two red dots. “I imagine they will assign us two of them to fill out the foursome.” He follows Van’s gaze in the direction of the clubhouse and then sees his eyes drift over the fields and streams of the course. Golfers frequently appear to be searching the horizon when they are, in fact, seeking out the landscape like a soothing touch. The Nonantum Golf Course is over one hundred years old. Once a long and luxurious private course with a stately clubhouse, it has been whittled away over the years by land sales and condo developments. The clubhouse is gone, replaced by a small mobile home that barely provides the minimum services of a pro shop and a food and beverage concession. Still, Nick thinks, the short, tight course that remains is enough to leave the world behind.

“It’s hard to believe it will soon be gone,” Nick says. “Our vanishing frontier. Replaced by a sea of bloated houses to generate tax revenues and a few ‘affordable’ units to take advantage of state subsidies.”

Van appears distracted by his preparations, but last night at a community “information” meeting with the aldermen, only Van spoke up for the golf course. It had not gone well.

“Have faith,” Van says, tapping at his phone. “Have I shown you this new golf application?”

“Not since last week.”

“Of course, it tells you the location of your ball, the shape and length of the hole, and the distance to all hazards and obstacles.”

“But that’s not all,” Nick says.

“You mock my search for the perfect golf application because you think it represents a misplaced search for some larger and elusive satisfaction in my life,” Van says.

“I mock your search because you spend the entire round looking at your phone, and you won’t talk to me anymore. I miss your company.”

In the car next to Van’s a young mother instructs her two small children to wait for her. They each have a bag of children’s clubs cross-strapped across their backs. They look like golfers, Nick thinks. Adorable golfers. In the next car, a small pickup truck, a young man in crisp golf apparel surreptitiously hands another young man, in jeans and a T‑shirt, a couple of joints and a six-pack.

Nick believes the mother and children are Chinese. He meets a wider range of people on the course than in other areas of his life. He met a Jamaican Rastafarian man, dreadlocks tucked under a woven multicolored golf cap, who worked at a local Kosher bakery. The man interrupted a round with Nick to run to his car for a babka loaf. They ate it on the back nine.

Now Van is playing with buttons to synch his golf watch with his phone app. “It also keeps track of every stroke and your score, measures the length of your shot, compiles your statistical averages, and pinpoints the weaknesses in your game,” Van says.

If it calculated longevity and included cancer risk among the course hazards, Nick might be interested. “Big as a golf ball!” his doctor had said when he palpated the node. Nick can’t get away from the game.

Now Nick points suspiciously at Van’s phone. “Don’t you think there must be something more in those numbers?” Nick considers himself a man of science, but he cannot ignore the evidence of unearthly powers at work on the course.

“Can’t you just enjoy my golf app as a useful guide?”

“Perhaps it is a Rosetta stone trying to tell you something about what is really going on out there.

“Wait until my scores start to drop,” Van says.

“You have such faith. Show me an app that accounts for the darker forces at play in these fields and I will be impressed.”

Fore!” A shout comes from somewhere in the vicinity. It is the universal warning shout on golf courses that a mishit golf ball is approaching. There is no sound of breaking glass or bodies lying prostrate in the parking lot. Most Fores! are false alarms.

“I had a dream,” Van says, his attention shifting to his internal landscape.

“Tell me.”

“I think not.”

Van is correct that Nick is wary of Van’s unholy attachment to his golf application. Nick knows that sometime later today, Van will use the application to recreate the entire round and to statistically analyze and summarize his progress, disappointments, accomplishments, and failures. Van will thereby locate himself at a precise moment in the history of his golfing experience. He will know who he is and where he has come from and extrapolate where he is going. It is all in the golf application on his phone.

Van removes his rain gloves from the large side pocket of his bag and attaches them to the ring of fabric that contains his club brush and towel attachment, then shifts the gloves to a front pocket, then puts them into his jacket pocket.

Nick feels a wave of concern for the pain his socially committed, generous friend will feel if they sell the course. Van has such faith in community action. Nick thinks of community as the creeping edge of an inexorable flow of humanity, crowding the fairways, swallowing the course, filling every nook and cranny.

“Let’s go,” Nick says. There is a hint of edge in his voice.

“Are you alright?” Van asks him.

“Even your friend is concerned about you.” Anne is back.

“Because I questioned his phone app? It’s an unnatural relationship.”

“I’m worried about you,” Nick says to Van.

Nick can still see Van lecturing the aldermen about the threat of the proposed development to the ecosystem, how the citizens of Nonantum would be chased from these fields. Many years ago, the indigenous people who once populated these fairways had been driven away, how next to what is now the sixteenth hole, the preacher John Eliot and his Montauk translator had offered the Natives the compensation of a Christian afterlife, the sermons commemorated by a granite porch and balustrade. Much as it gratified Nick to see how his friend’s argument had absorbed Nick’s preoccupation with the Puritans, he feared for its reception. Van might have gotten by as a harmless crank if he hadn’t refused to yield the microphone, arguing for the equally fragile green space between our ears that must be protected against the encroachments of our alienated lives, protected by and through the game of golf.

“I’m fine,” Van says. He is once again absorbed in his phone.

Is he fine? Nick is not so sure. In recent weeks Nick witnessed Van’s attempts to engage and rally the wide variety of golfers and workers, men and women, old people and children who populate the golf course. The targets of Van’s attention did not all appear receptive. Some smiled weakly and put a finger to their lips as if Van’s urgent message might disrupt a golf shot occurring somewhere on the course. Others simply nodded and moved away.

And me, am I fine? Nick wonders. His phone sits silently in his rear pocket. The expected call from his doctor, Dr. Gluck, hangs over his head like a sword. He sets the phone on buzz so a sudden ring will not disturb his fellow golfers, but he knows the peace and quiet he is attempting to sustain and the game he is protecting are his own.

Not that Nick is unaffected by the sad fate of the Nonantum Golf Course, their Elysian weekend retreat. But Nick knows that golf courses, even public golf courses, are often taken for symbols of privilege, of slow-paced leisure and wasted expanses of precious land; these vestigial outcroppings of nature readily succumb to market forces with few mourners to mark their passing.

Nick fears the prospect of the call is making him morbid and sentimental. Up until this point his search for a transcendent golf experience had been limited only by his abilities. He had not factored mortality into the equation. Golf is hard enough. Now he cannot deny that he is on the clock, and a potentially shortened clock at that.

He watches Van tinkering with his phone. Nick can appreciate his friend’s attempt to be a cartographer of his life, especially because Van is so incontrovertibly and heroically lost.

“And you are so centered?”

Anne’s taunts are mild enough, but he is not in a mood to be challenged.

“Are you planning to be with us the entire round?” he asks.

Pip, the border collie that works with the course groundskeeper to chase away the Canada geese that would otherwise foul the fairways with their excrement, wanders over and sits next to Van’s pull cart. Pip is staring across two fairways at a distant group of geese that has just made landfall. A few years ago, Pip would have welcomed the opportunity to scatter the intruders, but these days, nursing a hip ailment, she picks her moments more carefully. Like the golfers, she must defer to age-related limitations. Van is also staring into the distance, but Nick can see that Van’s attention is drawn to the small figure of the cart girl as she sets out to feed the golfers on the hill.

“Will at least one of you give chase?” Nick says.

“To what?”

“Do you know your mind at all?”

“People just need to be educated about the prospective sale,” Van says.

“It is not a prospective sale. It is a sale,” Nick says. “And why must all your causes be communal causes?”

“She is not interested in me.”

Van is referring to Jenny, the cart girl, who, he tells Nick, should not be referred to as the cart girl.

“It objectifies her,” Van says.

“Cart person? You are an admirably reconstructed man. Any woman would be lucky to have you.”

Van moves into the shade to better decipher images and numbers pertaining to the first hole.

“Van, if your phone needs you, it will call you.” Nick feels the outline of his phone pressing on him; it shares a tight pocket with his wallet. “What’s the rush?” Nick says. His anxiety about Gluck’s call has leaked into their conversation. He has not yet told his friend about the lymph node or the biopsy. Van glances at Nick with a quizzical expression.

Nick’s phone buzzes. It will be Gluck announcing his cancer. The doctor might at least have waited until after the front nine to call.

Perhaps the golf gods, moved by Nick’s fate, would have offered a special dispensation, a hole in one, an “ace.” Is that too much to ask? Nick has never experienced an ace. He has only witnessed two, the first by a kid barely taller than his driver hitting from the forward tees on a par three, the second by a woman who was ruing her poorly struck downhill ground ball when it somehow found the flag. There is, Nick must admit, a bit of luck involved. Or divine intervention. Or a reward for good character. He often struggles to understand the relationship between golf outcomes and just desserts.

“I’m not a bad person, I’m just a bad golfer,” Nick has not infrequently observed to Van after missing a short putt.

Now Nick turns to his friend to finally share the tragic moment of his diagnosis, but Van is talking on his phone. Puzzled, Nick checks his own phone and realizes the buzz he heard was not his own. The new and dangerous shore of Gluck’s call still waits.

“Terrible news!” Van says. He looks pale.

“My God, what is it?” Has Nick been so preoccupied he missed a health crisis in his friend? Has Van also been waiting on a call today to decide his fate?

“It’s the vote on the sale. They moved it up to a special meeting this afternoon. The developer must have pulled strings to rush the decision before we could get organized.”

“You’re not ill?”

“I’ll have to make calls while we play.”

“I’m glad you’re okay.”

“What are you talking about? I’m not sick.”

“I’m just saying,” Nick says. But Van is already back on his phone.

“Why golf?” the most sympathetic of the aldermen asked Van at the meeting last night. It struck Nick as a not unreasonable question.

“Suffice it to say,” Van began in a didactic tone that did not fall entirely short of patronizing, “that golf is not only the intersection of every aspect of every athletic contest there is, every game, every competition, every psychology, every worldview, and every spiritual longing, but also: it is a staging area for every individual, whatever their torment, to pose a contest between whoever they suspect they are and whoever they imagine they might be.”

“It’s a game,” the alderman said.

“I know what you mean,” Van said.

Now Van rushes to complete the distribution of balls and tees and glove that will enable him to begin the round. He straightens his cap and his glasses, checks his water bottle and, with a new urgency, his phone. Van’s contest between reality and illusion is about to begin and so, Nick must admit, is his own.

In these moments before the round starts, Nick thinks, golfers have no way of telling how the day will unfold. The weather may shine with good prospects, the golfer may feel as good as he or she can feel, and yet disaster ensues from the very first shot. Or the golfer may arrive sleepless and hungover or depressed and preoccupied and put up a spectacular score for no discernible reason. Nick knows many things about his friend and a few things about himself but not whether they will live the day in sun or storm or some combination of the two. He only knows that something will happen out there, and at this point there is not a hint, a breeze, an omen, or an app to tell him what it will be.


  1. Sybil Houlding on

    Smart, witty, profound, entertaining. I want to read more.

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