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?"
She pondered this. "Not in the least."
They hadn't gotten far with dinner before he began to hope that they were going to be more than friends. They slowly drank the wine he had ordered while she talked about her plans: getting on with life, a new job in a bank, away from the Walgreen's where she had been working for five years. She liked the idea of having someone to go places with; Bruce had been such a couch potato. Dallworth asked her if she would like to go to a movie the next evening. He felt the need to establish this while they seemed to be getting along so well.
"I'd love to," she said.
"You ever play golf?" he asked. His enthusiasm was running away with him.
"I should, given where I live." Her voice had a faintly sardonic note. "Of course, when they built the country club, they took extra care to plant those little fat pines on the border of my yard. They don't like the fact that I'm there. My little house doesn't exactly fit the profile. I've been tempted to poison the trees. But I'd never actually do a thing like that, of course."
Very gently, he said, "Would you like to learn how to play golf?"
"I don't know."
He would not push the golf if she showed no interest. He felt unsettled. He was almost forty. His one marriage had ended more than twelve years earlier, a childless waste. He wanted a family, and this feeling had grown stronger as the decade of his thirties ran out. He had feared that it was already too late. Regina looked at him frankly, and he sensed that she enjoyed something in him over which he had no conscious control. He felt stupidly as if this evening were some sort of last chance, and inwardly he berated himself, looking at the other people in the restaurant in their relaxed poses, their settled, pleasurable sociability. He had spent too much time alone in the past year.
Now she spoke about seeing the golfers outside her bedroom window all day in the warm weather, and she speculated aloud about what they could be thinking as they shambled by, together but separate; sometimes they seemed to be playing field hockey, hacking at the ball, which just rolled along the ground a few yards at a time. To be good at it must be especially rewarding.
"Yes," he said. But he was uncomfortably certain that he was one of the people she had watched go by her window. In five years his lowest score had been sixty-six, but that was for nine holes. "Golf has a beauty," he told her, managing to sound authoritative. "It's hard to explain to someone who doesn't know the game, or play it."
Sensing that she had made him uneasy, she sought other things to talk about. Nothing suggested itself. A disconcerting silence drew down on them. She gave him her best smile, worried that he would feel the quiet as displeasure. She had wasted the past decade with a man who was exciting and harrowing and interesting when he was sober, and terrifying when he was drunk. She had stayed with him, she knew, out of a kind of recklessness that was also cowardly. For several years she had become increasingly frightened of growing old alone. That, too, had been a reason for staying with Bruce. She was not pretty in the normal sense; her face was too narrow, and her features gave her the look of a sort of continual renunciation, as though she had just declared against some abstract offense. She had tried to soften this by heightening her eyebrows and making her lips a little fuller with lipstick. Nothing worked. When she looked in a mirror, she saw the face of an irritable schoolteacher. She, too, wanted a family, and time was passing. She could not say any of this to him.
Dishonesty is not less common in love than in any other facet of life, and the person who swears that truth will be the centerpiece of his relations with others is a fool. She would be thirty-six in two months. Gazing into his almost feminine blue eyes, she realized that the sound of his voice calmed her. It actually pleased her. He had begun talking about his day out on the links.
"Someday," she said, "I'll stay home from work and wait for you in my back yard. I'll have a drink all ready for you. All you have to do is walk up the fourth fairway and step through the row of trees and there I'll be. How would you like that?"
He smiled, and hoped she'd forget the idea.
The talk -- or the wine, he couldn't tell which, though he supposed it was the latter -- apparently had an aphrodisiac effect on her. He was describing the difficulty of hitting a ball on a downhill lie and getting loft on it -- talking now just to keep things going, feeling increasingly uneasy about the silences -- when she ran her stockinged foot up one side of his leg, under the table.
"Where do you work?" she asked.
"I own this little company with my brother, you know. As they said in court."
"I didn't hear a lot of what went on in court," she said, moving her foot.
He couldn't breathe out for a second. "And -- and there's -- there's a small trust, from my mother's estate. My mother owned a peanut farm and sold it to a corporation. My company's a glass company." Her foot had reached above his knee and was starting back down.
"You know. For windows."
"So you don't have a profession?"
"Well, I have the company. It took a lot to get it off the ground. There was an awful lot to do. It pays for itself. But it doesn't really make any money. My older brother, Mack -- Mack runs it."
Her foot stopped moving, and she sat straighter. "I don't want you to think I'm fast," she said.
"Everything's okay," he told her.
"Well," she said. "So what else?"
He shrugged. "There's not much to tell. In the past five years I've been involved in eleven civil cases -- and this is the first one that resulted in a jail sentence for somebody."
"Couldn't have happened to a better person."
"Does Bruce -- hold grudges?" Dallworth asked her.
She nodded thoughtlessly. "Tell me more about yourself."
"Five years seems like a long time, but it goes by awful quick."
"Come on," she said. "Tell me."
His ex-wife had recently taken up with a pair of gay men somewhere on Long Island. She was a photographer. Sex had troubled her. None of this seemed worth mentioning. The marriage had come apart without rancor or particular concern. In other words, it had been a catastrophe. He didn't know where he had gone wrong. He told Regina how many years had passed since the divorce. "It was amicable," he said.
She watched his hands tremble slightly, and his nervousness endeared him to her. She folded her own hands on the table and smiled. "It's been anything but amicable with Bruce."
REGINA had no understanding of sports, and the charms of golf eluded her. She had spoken about this often. When Dallworth went off for a weekend in Canada, to play a new course, she mentioned it to her mother. He had played almost every day for most of his thirties, spending more money than he should, even traveling to southerly climes for an occasional weekend during the coldest part of the winter. He had probably been one of those people out on the grass behind her house, she told her mother, though she had never seen him play, and had no desire to. She liked him. She liked him. Her mother wanted to know if she hankered for him. She used that word.
"I don't know," Regina said. "I felt that way about Bruce, and look what kind of life I had. This is friendly."
HE was beginning to be in love.
When he returned from his trip, he called to tell her he had missed her, and stumbled through a few clumsy remarks about the weather in Canada, how cool the mornings were and how long the dew stayed on the grass. He came to take her to lunch, in the middle of her Monday, and he had already played eighteen holes, had teed off at six- thirty in a low ground fog, the misty dawn. She was fascinated. Having been married young and widowed young -- a thing she didn't want to talk about -- and having lived with a man like Bruce, who lacked the temperament or the ability to appreciate the subtleties of anything, she had been, she now realized, fairly starved for talk, any kind of discourse, something other than the books she escaped into, or the empty racket of television. She craved simple human communication. She was on the rebound, as people say. She felt able, at last, to breathe again.
Because he was in love, he saw the circumstances of their meeting in an increasingly romantic light, as if they were characters in a film. When he talked on the phone to Mack, he always talked about Regina. Mack, who watched a lot of television, found this tiresome. Dallworth would describe what she wore and report her conversational flourishes verbatim. Her forwardness was an aspect of her charm. She was bold; she seemed to be moving under pressure. She had wide interests and a sophisticated way of discerning the heart of things. He liked to theorize about her.
"There's a lot I don't know about her life," he said.
"What about the business, John? What're you gonna do?"
"It's supporting itself, Mack. You don't let me do anything but sit there and answer the phone."
Mack had bought and outfitted a small recording studio with his share of the inheritance from their mother. This gamble had turned out to be lucrative, and Mack was paying a young woman to run the studio for him. He was amazed at how many people wanted to record themselves playing one instrument or another, or singing their own songs. Bad songs, Mack said. He kept a little book for lines from the really bad ones. In his opinion, John in his obsession with golf was a little like these would-be songwriters, all of them anxious to protect their copyrights, as though anyone would want to steal such awful stuff. Recently Mack had taken to saying lines from the songs when his younger brother started talking about Regina.
"She's mysterious, Mack. Truly mysterious. There's things she won't talk about."
"How can I say I'm sorry when my foot is in my mouth?"
"I love your smell."
"Mack, do you want me to stop calling you?"
"I don't want to talk about Regina, bro. Okay?"
WITH Regina, Dallworth talked about his travels to distant places to play golf. They became regulars at a Mexican restaurant, owned and run by a Bulgarian gentleman, at the entrance to the Skyline Drive. They would sit by a window, sipping red wine. She wanted him to talk; she would ask about his day, and then insist that he recount what he could remember of his round. She was learning about the game in this fashion, and for her it was much better than watching it. He would go through the day's shots, being exact and honest. Eight strokes on the par-four first hole, thirteen on the par-five second, nine on the par-four third, seven on the par-three fourth. She had a way of blinking lazily as he talked, which at first made him nervous. "You can't want me to go on."
She said, "I do too."
"You're not bored?"
"I'm not bored. I'm calm. It calms me to listen to you. I like to picture everything."
So he tried to be clear about the lay of the land -- the look of things. He had discovered in himself a capacity for description. Whereas once he had talked to relieve his nervousness, now he was indulging himself, and he began exaggerating a little. Although he was scrupulous on the course about his score, when he described his day to Regina, the shots began to straighten out, the pars came with slowly increasing regularity, and birdies began to appear.
One afternoon he scored an eagle on the long par-five fifteenth at Skeeterville Trace, in Charlottesville (he actually shot a twelve, but it would have taken too long to tell her each shot, the three that he hit into the water, the two that were lost in the brush at the dogleg, the four mulligans he'd taken -- the first he had ever allowed himself -- to keep the number at twelve). He described for her the long, looping drive off the tee (no feeling like it in the world, he said), and the chance he took on the approach, using a three wood uphill, the ball rolling to the fringe of the green, and then the forty- five-foot putt, through tree shadows, downhill. It was all vivid in his mind, as if it had actually unfolded that way, and she sat there gazing at him, sweetly accepting.
Perhaps he had begun to believe it himself.
Regina, of course, was unimpressed. Not because she felt any superiority but because she wasn't really listening to the words. She basked in the sound of his voice, and she could listen to him without attending to the details. He was so gentle; he was careful of her; and she liked the way his chin came to a cleft, liked the blue sparkle in his eyes, which gave her an idea of the little boy he must have been. She thought about him when she was alone, and felt glad looking forward to him, waiting for him to arrive after his day. He seldom talked about the business except to mention casually that Mack was having new phones installed, and that they were about to be audited again. Mack handled everything. Mack had been the one, all their lives, who was good at things: captain of the football team, co-captain of the basketball team, star third baseman. Mack had been born sleek, fast, quick of foot, agile, and he possessed a cruel streak, a killer instinct. John told her about him without mentioning what must have been apparent in contrast -- that he himself had been too thin, too gangly and slow, almost dopey. He made self-deprecating jokes about his dreadful youth, but they were dropped into the conversation as if they didn't matter very much -- as offhand as talk about the weather. Dallworth was happy. And perhaps she had never known a really happy man before.
He spent a lot of time imagining them together, married. He considered himself old-fashioned. But finding the courage was painfully difficult. He would plan exactly how he might ask her, would head for her house with resolve beating in his breast, and then each time they were together, he'd lose his nerve.
He would end up lying about what he had done on the golf course again.
This was beginning to bore him. It was also getting out of hand. They talked about other things, of course, and she had a way of observing people that made him a little apprehensive about what she must be able to discern in him. But they were more often glad than they were uncomfortable, and she would eventually lead him back to talking about the game, his day's game. She sat there staring, blinking slowly, with wonderful attention. He would have gone on forever to keep that soft look on her face.
is the author of many books, including (1993), (1996), and which was published this summer.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; Par; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 62 - 72.