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HE rainy afternoon of her birthday they made love for the first time. It was exactly as awkward as she had feared it might be. But it was considerate, too, and rather more tender than had ever before been her experience. They lay quiet for a time and then began again, and she found to her surprise that she could forget herself. Later, while he held her, she told him of her early marriage -- how her husband, a man she had loved and who had come with her out of her adolescence, had been killed in Australia in a freakish accident. The accident nevertheless made a certain terrible kind of sense. His name, she said -- she still believed it was purest coincidence -- was also Bruce. This Bruce, her first love, had traveled to Sydney as a panel member for a conference, sponsored by an insurance group, that concerned the rates of occurrence of auto accidents under various traffic conditions and controls. Not fifteen minutes after he arrived at his hotel, he had gone out for a walk; stopping at a curbside, he had looked left, where right-lane traffic would be in the United States, and then stepped out in front of a bus, which was of course oncoming in the left lane, since this was Australia, where everything was backward.
"Well," she said, "not backward. You know what I mean." She hadn't spoken of this for a long time, and it was her thirty-sixth birthday. Her own sadness surprised her; she felt the tears come.
Dallworth hurried to say how sorry he was. Perhaps this was the opening, the chance to ask for her hand. He mustered all his nerve, took a breath, stared into her brimming eyes, opened his mouth, stopped, breathed again, and heard himself say, "I had another eagle this morning."
Somewhere in the synapses of his brain was what he'd meant to go on and say: that he wouldn't consider an eagle -- or a hole in one, for that matter -- to be much of an accomplishment if he couldn't have her for a wife. The absurdity of it made him stop at the word "morning," and anyhow she hadn't heard him. She was still thinking about her first love.
Dallworth was at a loss. It occurred to him that if they remained here, in this small brick house with the patter of rain on the roof, she would just grow sadder. He could not ask her to marry him while she wept over being thirty-six and a widow -- while she continued to think of her first love.
The rain ran down the window. His trust-fund check wasn't due for another week. Mack wasn't giving him much income from the glass business. It would have been wonderful to say "Let's go down to Florida and play a few holes at Sawgrass." He supposed he could arrange it. But now, in the moment, the idea seemed too extreme, and even, in some obscure way, aggressive. He said, "Let's go out and play the fourth hole."
"So? There's no lightning or anything."
"I've never even held a golf club." She seemed amused by the idea.
"I'll show you."
"You're kidding me."
"I've never been more serious in my life."
She stared at him.
"I've got my clubs in the trunk of my car."
She got up and walked naked to the window and looked out. The rain was streaming on the glass and made a reflection of itself trailing down her skin. She looked lovely, he thought, though somehow wounded, flawed, too vulnerable. He averted his eyes, seeming casually to glance at the clock on the wall. "Well?" he said.
She gazed at the grayness hanging over the wet trees, the dragging ends of clouds sailing away in the breezes. She said, "All right."
HE warm rain soaked them before they got very far down the fairway to the tee. The leaves of the maples and oaks flanking the lawns of the newer houses drooped; they looked black. A thick mist obscured the descending slope off the tee, and the sixth green, to the left, seemed half-absorbed into the whiteness of mist and ground fog. They heard traffic in the near distance, and the far-off hum of a groundskeeper's tractor. But nothing moved nearby. He carried his clubs on his shoulder, and she held on to his other arm, keeping close. He felt rather amazingly good. Her dress, a blue cotton one with short sleeves, clung to her, as did her hair, which was two shades darker than usual. She looked like a little girl. He set his bag against the wooden bench, got two Maxflis out, pocketed them, selected the driver, gripped it, and waggled it slightly. She stood a few paces away, arms folded, watching. Back in high school, when Mack was the best at all the sports, Dallworth used to watch his older brother strut and achieve for his beautiful girlfriend, who was not a cheerleader but could have been, and who was always right there, watching him. Dallworth had never been granted the experience. He propped the club against his leg and brought out his glove and a couple of tees.
"You need gloves?"
"Especially today," he said, peering off into the rain and mist, aware of her gaze on him. As he stepped up to the hitting area, he reflected that in all the thousands of attempts he had made to hit the ball right, he had rarely succeeded. Abruptly, with a feeling of terrible discovery, he knew how slim his chances were of striking the ball right under any circumstances, much less these. He hesitated, remembering, as a little spasm worked in the muscles at the base of his neck, all the lies he had told her in the past few weeks. He had not felt them as lies until this second. The rain poured over his head and shoulders, and he looked at the water-soaked ground and was afraid. He took a practice swing and felt rusty, though he had played eighteen holes that morning. Perhaps he should let her try to hit it first.
The thought came to him like a temptation, and he shook it off. Steeling himself for what he was now almost certain would be a humiliation, he gripped the ball with the tee and set it down into the soft earth.
"I'm excited," she said. The rain had drenched her. Mascara streaked her face. She looked like a crying clown.
"Here goes," he said.
She nodded. Water poured past her chin.
He stepped up to the ball, planted his feet, and then stepped back to take another practice swing. The club felt wrong; the grip was wet now. Everything ran with the rain; water beaded up on the clean aluminum shaft. He stepped back up, held his head still, and eyed the ball, its whiteness in that rainy light, thinking to keep his left arm straight. He pulled back slowly, trying to remember everything. And he felt as he reached the top of his backswing that he was going to smash it, he was going to knock it deep into the mist, the longest and best hit of his life -- because this was romance, and how it ought to be, and God would give it to him. He felt it in his bones; this was something they would talk about many years from now -- the perfect smack of the ball, its flight into the obscure distance.
He brought the club down with huge force and caught the wet ground about a foot behind the ball.
The club head dug into the mud, sending a shock wave up his arms. With effort he pulled it out, and as he did so, it made an embarrassing sucking sound, but he kept his balance and tried to seem casual, waggling the club head, with its clod of dirt clinging to it. The dirt looked like a wet rag. He tapped the head against the ground twice, and the clod dropped off. There was now a deep gash in the turf. Bending down, water pouring from him, he moved the ball a few inches farther along. She was a dark-blue shape in the corner of his eye, standing very still.
For her part, she had understood that things were going wrong, and had attributed this to the weather. His swing looked nothing like the few she had seen on television; it was too deeply swaying, as if he were trying something balletic. She wanted to encourage him but kept silent for fear of distracting him, knowing that people kept still while a golfer was getting set to hit the ball.
She was a little surprised when he turned to her.
"You okay?" he said.
She was touched that he could be worried about her at such a time, contending with the rain. Someone so serious about what he was trying to do. "Sure." She smiled.
He thought she was trying not to laugh. "Sorry this is taking so long," he said. "I'm not usually this slow."
He addressed the ball, attempting once more to keep all the instructions in his head: left arm stiff, weight evenly balanced, head still, concentrate. He brought the club back, told himself to swing easy, and shifted too much, nearly losing his balance, bringing the club around with far more speed than he had intended, and missing everything. The bright wet aluminum shaft made a water- throwing swish. He stepped back. "Another practice swing."
"You really look violent," she said.
"It's a violent thing," he told her. "The swing."
"I can see that."
This had been the wrong thing to do. He tried forgetting that she was there, and swung, and hit wide of the ball this time, taking another very large, muddy divot, which traveled a good forty yards.
She watched it arc out of sight into the mist and understood that this, too, was not a good thing. She could hear the distress in his breathing. "Wow," she said, because she could think of nothing else to say.
He waggled the club, put it up to the ball, and accidentally bumped the ball off the tee. It rolled an inch or so. "Damn rain," he said, bending to set it right again.
"It's really coming down," she said.
He swung and missed once more, hitting behind it again, another clod of mud. Now he stepped closer and, with no waggle at all, swung again. He made contact this time: the very tip of the club sent the ball on a direct line at a ninety-degree angle from him; it hit the tee marker slightly to the right of its curve, ricocheted, seemed to leap in a white trailing streak toward the ball washer, standing ten feet away and behind the tee, bounced off that, came back like a shot, and struck him in the groin.
He went down on all fours and then lay down, and she was at his side, hands on his arm, trying to turn him. For a few very awful moments he was aware only of the spreading area of pain in his middle. He held his arms around his upper abdomen, out of sheer humiliation. She was saying something but he couldn't hear it. He was sick to his stomach. The rain pelted his face, and then water poured from her hair; she had put her face down to his.
"Are you all right?" she said.
"Okay," he managed.
He did not look okay to her. She knew the ball had struck him, but hadn't seen exactly where. Because he was holding his stomach, she assumed it was there. It had all happened so fast.
"Can you get up?" she said.
"No," he said. "My ball ..." He stopped and tried to hide what he had almost said in a gasp for air.
"I don't know where it went."
"No," he said. "Please."
"It hit you," she said. "I didn't see."
"My balls," he said. It had come out in spite of him. He wanted to sink down into the wet grass and mud and disappear. From where he lay, he could see the divots and dug-up places where he had tried to be someone other than who he was.
"Can you get up?" she said.
He found that he could. He had imagined that they would play the fourth hole and he would help her. The whole thing seemed like an idiotic kid's dream now -- all of it, including ever getting any good at this game.
She was helping him to walk. "My clubs," he said. "Damn. Everything's getting wet."
"Here," she told him, moving him slightly. She got him to sit on the bench. He saw his golf club lying where he had dropped it, the ball a few feet away, and the surrounding drenched greenness.
She had placed herself on the bench next to him, and held his hands in her own. "It doesn't make any difference," she said. "Really." She now realized where he had been hit. She put her arms around him. They might have been huddled there against some great grief. The rain kept coming.
He couldn't speak quite yet.
"Someday when it's dry," she told him.
T the house she helped him out of his clothes and got him to lie down in the bed; he lay on his side with the blanket up to his shoulder. His hair soaked the pillow case, and he began to shiver. The nausea had subsided somewhat. He remembered his clubs, and tried to tell her about them, but she had anticipated his concern. "I'll be right back," she said. When she had been gone a few seconds, he got out of the bed and limped to the window to look out at her, beyond the little row of fir trees, making her way along the wet fairway in the rain, hurrying, her arms folded tight about her. He had never felt so naked. She disappeared into the misty, rainy distance while he watched. Then, moaning low, feeling sick again, he went into the bathroom and looked at himself, all gooseflesh. He pulled a towel off the rack and began drying his hair. He had nothing to put on, no way to get out, to get away. In her closet he found a man's clothes -- the second Bruce's clothes. They were all way too big for him. The sleeves hung down, the shoulders sagged. He put them back and went along her hallway to the dryer, his clothes tumbling there. He opened the door and looked in; they were all still very wet. Closing the door with a barely suppressed moan, he pushed the button to start the dryer again. It would be an hour at least. He struggled -- he still had difficulty walking -- back to the window. She was nowhere. Here was her small patio, with its wrought-iron furniture. A round table, four chairs, a closed umbrella. He saw citronella candles, an overturned glass, a statuette of a bird in flight. The gas grill had a black cover over it, like a cowl. Water ran down the sides. It all looked alien, so much not his, not home. He got himself back under the blanket and waited. His eyes burned; he discovered that he was deeply drowsy and wondered if he might pass out.
HE had started down the fairway, uncomfortable and even irritable in the rain, wondering what would happen now. She felt oddly that some serious change would come, and she recalled how her grief over the first Bruce had included an element of anger at him for getting killed in that bungling way. She had always felt guilty for that unacceptable emotion, and perhaps she had put up with the second Bruce's casual mistreatment of her as a kind of atonement. Nearing the fourth tee, she had an image of Dallworth flailing at the ball on its little yellow tee; it made her begin to laugh. She couldn't help herself. She went to the bench and sat down, sopping wet. She put her hands to her face and laughed helplessly, almost hysterically, for what seemed a long while. She would have a hard time explaining what had taken so much time. But she felt confident of his kindness, his wish to please her, and anyway, she couldn't move. The muscles around her rib cage seized up, and she went on laughing.
Finally she picked up the club and the ball and dropped them into the bag. Then she began trying to haul it back to her house. For a slow, pouring, almost painful five minutes she moved in the heavy mist and rain, surrounded by the soft, sodden, close-clipped grass; the base of the bag, like a plough's blade, created a dark mud streak behind her. She didn't care. Her back ached; her arms felt as though they might pull out of their sockets.
She set the bag of clubs under the eaves above the patio and stepped inside, dripping. She found him curled up in her bed. "I'm gonna take a shower," she said. "Want to join me?" He was asleep. She stepped to the edge of the bed, gazed at him, and then reached down and shook his shoulder, more roughly than she had meant to. "Hey."
He rose up out of a dream of being jostled in a crowded place and was startled to find her looming over him, water beaded on her face and running down her jaw, hair matted to her cheeks. He noticed that her ears stood straight out from her head, and for some reason this made him ache under the heart. He almost reached up and touched her cheek.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It was all a lot of lying."
"I'm not any good at it," he told her. "I'm awful. And I'm not getting any better."
"You're okay," she told him.
She went in and took a brief shower, toweled off, and put on a bathrobe. She found him still in the bed.
"Those other clothes are all too big for me," he said, and began to cry.
This surprised them both. She got into bed with him and held him like a little boy. When he had gained control over himself, he said, "I don't know."
She resisted the urge to be sharp with him. She said, "John, are you physically damaged?"
He turned to look over his blanketed shoulder at her. "What do you mean?"
"Do you need a doctor?"
"I don't think so, no."
"Do you know what aspect of golf I've never understood and would like to understand?"
"I'm not much good at it," he told her with a disconsolate sigh.
"I've heard people say it's the hardest thing."
"I thought Bruce never played."
"Let's not talk about him -- or anybody named Bruce," she said.
A moment later he said, "It is hard to do -- putting."
"And I bet you could show me a lot."
He understood perfectly well what she was doing now, and he knew that he would never question it or examine it very closely. She lay breathing into the base of his neck, here, under the blanket, her arm resting on his abdomen, the elbow causing the slightest discomfort, but she was a friendly presence, trying to give him something. He said, "Can I stay here tonight?"
"You know you can."
He shifted a little, and she moved her arm so that her hand rested on his hip. "If the rain stops, maybe in the morning we can spend some time on the practice green," he said.
She murmured, "That would be fun."
They went to sleep at almost the same time, and dreamed separately, of course. She saw herself leading children through a sunny field of flowers, and many of them were misbehaving, breaking the stems off. He dreamed that he was dreaming in her bed while she emptied the closet of clothes that were, as things often are in dreams, outlandish, out of all scale, and too big for any normal man.
Richard Bausch is the author of many books, including Rebel Powers (1993), The Selected Stories of Richard Bausch (1996), and In the Night Season, which was published this summer.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; Par; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 62 - 72.