Par

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

WHAT John Dallworth liked about it at first was being outside in the dewy morning among shade trees and perfectly cut grass, the soft peaks and swells of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. He liked the sounds -- different birdcalls, the tattoo of a woodpecker, the breezes in the leaves, the cleats on the cart paths, the metallic song of the clubs in the bag, the hum of the carts, even the brush- swish and rattle of the ball washers. And the smells, too -- earth and grasses and pine, leather and wood, and the pungent turf-and-fertilizer odor of the carpet-smooth greens. In the early mornings the grass looked as though it were coated with diamonds, millions of dewdrops reflecting sun. Each fairway stretched out before him invitingly, the very essence of possibility.

Of course, he had to admit that the possibilities were mostly bad for a beginner -- the sand bunkers in their pristine, as yet undisturbed whiteness, and the tangled, often impenetrable woods, and the glass-smooth, slate-colored pools of water bordering one hole or crossing the approach to another. He considered these hazards beautiful, even when they cost him strokes (and he took so many strokes in the beginning). But the travails of each hole always led, finally, to the dropping of the ball into the cup -- to that hollow, solid little sound, like no other in the world. And when he leaned down to retrieve the ball at the end of its perilous journey, he would imagine the polite applause of the gallery.
He told most of this to Regina Eckland on their first evening together, and Regina found that she liked the soft, kindly baritone timbre of his voice. It was far from what she had been used to. And she began saying the things that she hoped would encourage him to ask to see her again. He did so.

Regina's friend Angie teased her about him. "Could this be love?" she said.

"Well," Regina said, "maybe it is, at that."

"You can't be serious. He's almost bald, and he spends all his time in a golf cart."

"You know, Angie, sometimes you can be pretty snobbish," Regina said. But she felt a twinge of doubt, which she tried to ignore. Her mother had expressed misgivings too. It was too soon to be jumping into another relationship, especially with a golf fanatic, a man who spent so much time on the links that his business was stagnating. Everybody had an opinion -- even Dallworth's older brother, who managed the business, who had already been divorced twice, and who, in his magisterial and austere way, had counseled patience, caution. To everyone who loved or cared for them separately, they seemed headed for disaster.

And in spite of everything, this is a happy story.

Part of the difficulty was the circumstances under which they met. She lived in a small house behind a row of small evergreens along the fourth fairway of the Whiskey Creek Golf and Country Club, where John Dallworth had played dozens of times. Dallworth had sued a local car dealership for adding fraudulent charges to his repair bills. The culprit in the case, the man who ran the parts shop, was arrested for embezzlement and ended up being sentenced to jail for five years. This was Regina's dangerous live-in boyfriend, Bruce. The day Bruce was sentenced, she got in her car and made the trip to the other side of Point Royal, Virginia, to thank Dallworth for the favor. They had seen each other in court, where Regina was always with Bruce, clutching her purse with both hands and sitting with her perfect legs tight together.

Dallworth was astonished to find her on his front porch. Bruce, she said, was not a nice man at all, and now that he would be in the hands of the authorities for a few years, she planned to cut herself free of him.

Dallworth had discerned that Bruce was one of those types who, when described by the women with whom they live, make others wonder what could have seemed attractive about them in the first place. Regina portrayed him as lazy, self- absorbed, bitter, bad-tempered, a felon, paranoid, and increasingly violent.

And now, thank God, a prisoner.

"And you're the one who got it done," she said. "I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am."

"How did you find my address?"

"The clerk of the court is a friend of mine. Angie."

"You were always over there on the other side of the aisle," he told her.

"Well, I couldn't get up the courage to show my true feelings. Bruce might've killed me."

"Really?" Dallworth was standing in his doorway with the door partly shut.

"Well, he's gone for the time being." She turned slightly and looked off. The wind lifted a few shining strands of her reddish hair and let them fall again. "He hit me sometimes."

"I'm sorry he did that to you," Dallworth said, wanting to close the door. He didn't know quite how he was expected to proceed.

She stood there, obviously waiting for him to do something.

"So," he said.

She said, "I spent ten years like that," and smiled. "I am just so grateful to you."


HE ended up taking her to dinner. They went to a small Italian restaurant in a mall, a little south of the town of Winchester. It was a sunny early evening in July. Dallworth knew the restaurant and hoped she would admire, as he did, the European feel of the place once they got inside. The waiters were all Italian; the food was northern Italian, served with an easy, familiar dexterity, and in marvelously decorative profusion. He watched her eat, and finally decided to be honest with her. "I feel odd," he said. "Do you feel odd?"

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