The Back Nine

Charles Haverty

I get the kids for a month in the summer, two weeks up front and two in the back. Caitlin is fourteen now and Fletcher just turned seven, but what I want to tell you about happened during those two weeks last August, when I drove them out to Illinois to visit their grandfather and Carol, the woman he married after my mother died. Carol used to work the counter at this hardware store that my brother Trout talked the old man into buying, which he ended up selling to Trout for a song.
    I’m in commercial art, and for a time I had a pretty good run drawing biblical comic books for a religious publishing outfit north of Boston. But that ran dry after Revelations, and from there on out things were catch–as–catch–can. I hadn’t worked since June, I still owed Maureen August’s child support, and she wouldn’t hesitate to avail herself of the court system, as the court system had done all right by her. On top of which there was the next month’s child support, a couple months’ rent and car payments, the kids’ insurance, an IRS lien, and too much more to mention. I figured that sixteen thousand dollars would put things right, or at least right enough to start putting them right. So, last August, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and combine the kids’ vacation with a little fundraising. All I needed was a hand up, and this trip was my last chance. The old man might say no to me, but could he say no to them?
    The idea had been to drive as far as Ashtabula, Ohio, and stop over for the night at a motel. I couldn’t afford the airfare, and both kids would just as soon go by car; a swimming pool, an ice machine, and pay–per–view movies mean a lot to them. But when my American Express card wouldn’t go through at a gas station outside of Worcester, I decided to drive straight through the night.
    We’d just passed Buffalo when the kids and I got to talking about names. Fletcher asked, “How come you’re called Francis and your brother’s called Trout?”
    “Because Grandpa’s name is Francis,” I said.
    “So then how come my name’s not Francis?”
    “Because your mother didn’t want you to be a Francis. She wanted you to be a Fletcher.”
    “Then how come Trout’s called Trout?”
    “Because Grandpa likes to fish,” Caitlin said. She’s like her mother that way: an answer for everything.
    “No,” I said, “it wasn’t that. I don’t think Grandpa ever fished in his life. He doesn’t even eat fish.”
    “Then how come?” Fletcher asked.
    “Because he just liked the way it sounded, is all.”
    “Well, that’s about the stupidest reason I ever heard,” Caitlin said.
    Trout and I are what some call “Irish twins.” He was born eleven months after me—the morning Ruby shot Oswald—so that, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, we’re the same age. Five years had passed since I’d last seen him, and the last thing I needed was to see him now. For one thing, I knew he’d be the devil in the old man’s ear, that I could count on his coming up with sixteen thousand reasons why the old man shouldn’t lend me a dollar. For another, he’d bailed me out in May when Maureen had last availed herself of the court system, and I still owed him for that, not to mention a couple of earlier loans.
    The kids and I listened to one oldies station after another, from state to state and station to station, and while they slept I listened alone. My idea of oldies is the music my mother listened to while I was in utero. I pictured her stretched out on a beach towel, a transistor radio pressed to her belly. Doo–wop: water music. Deep memory: amniotic and briny. I was born near the ocean, and when I think of my mother, I remember her swimming far out into the bay, so far out that all we could see was the sun in her hair like a flare on the water. The lifeguard would blow his whistle out across the waves, and the old man would tell me, “Go fetch your mother, Francis. She’s trying to swim back to Galway again.”
    Maureen lost her father around the time I lost my mother, and in better days she’d say that the two of us were half–orphans who’d happened to find each other, that together we made one whole orphan. I thought of Maureen and the last time I’d seen her: in court, a problem with child support payments and visitation arrangements, blood and economics.
    I told the judge, “Love is not a fungible commodity, your Honor.” I couldn’t afford a lawyer and had been reading a book called Twelve Days to a More Muscular Vocabulary. Maureen could afford a lawyer, and she’d done something to her hair, some brassy something, almost purple but nothing drastic—just enough to keep it interesting.
    The judge said, “Excuse me, Mr. Hardy?”
    I said, “Love, your Honor. Love is not a fungible commodity.”
     “What are you talking about?” The judge leaned far over the bench. “Do you even know what fungible means?”
    I tried to answer but couldn’t find the words, and when I began to find the words, she wouldn’t let me talk.
    That night I telephoned Maureen. It was late.
    “Fungible,” I recited. “Being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind.”
    “Are you drunk?” she asked.
    I said, “I’m just tired is all,” and continued. “For example, a sack of potatoes can be replaced easily by another sack of potatoes.”
    She didn’t say anything.
    “What did you do to your hair?” I asked, but she’d already hung up.
    Toward dawn, on the outskirts of Elyria, Ohio, I realized that if I heard the Four Tops sing “Standing in the Shadows of Love” one more time, I’d turn the wheel into the oncoming headlights. I thought of the old man and the sixteen thousand dollars, and that drip, drip, drip of dread splashed in the pit of my stomach. I thought of Hank Williams and all his troubles, and it seemed that all I needed right then was to hear that medicinal cry in his voice. So, I pulled into the next rest stop and told the kids to keep the doors locked, that I’d be right back.
    But Caitlin insisted on going in herself, that she was perfectly capable of purchasing a compact disc. “I have to buy Tampax anyway,” she said. “You don’t want to go in there and buy Tampax, do you?”
    “Tampax?” I said. “But you’re thirteen.”
    “Yeah,” she said.
    I gave her two twenties and told her to bring back the change. Minutes later she came back to the car, jiggling a white plastic bag. She handed me the disc, along with the change.
    “Jesus Christ, Caitlin, this isn’t Hank Williams,” I said. “This is Hank Williams, Junior .”
    “What’s the difference?” she asked, whereupon I explained the difference all the way from Sandusky to Toledo. She stared out at the nothing landscape pouring past, saying nothing, and she might just as well have been Maureen sitting there, Maureen or my mother. When I was nine and Trout was eight and the old man became vice president of P & P Packaging, Inc., he moved the four of us from Long Island to the wilds of the far Chicago suburbs, far, far out to the landlocked “village” of Giverny, Illinois. We’d traveled this same route then, and all the while he’d tried to comfort my mother with the promise of Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan, he said, was a Great Lake, as big as the Atlantic for all intents and purposes. But Lake Michigan wasn’t anywhere near Giverny, and my mother didn’t speak a word from New York to Illinois.
    I passed Hank Williams, Jr.’s Greatest Hits back to Fletcher and asked him to unwrap it. As he stripped the cellophane off the jewel box, I saw how long his fingernails had grown, and between his unkempt nails and Caitlin’s silence, I felt desolate. I put on the CD, and after the second or third song, I said, “Hey, this isn’t bad.” And it wasn’t. It was good. It wasn’t Hank Williams, but it was good all the same, and in the middle of the fifth track, Caitlin said, “See? I told you you’d like it.”
    Fletcher said, “That’s because they’re his greatest hits.” And that explained everything.

They were playing oldies in the restaurant where we stopped for breakfast. Just inside the entrance, they’d installed a driving simulation game called Wipe Out, complete with sound effects—squealing tires, crash noises, a high–pitched giggle—that played even when no one was playing. Caitlin ordered a Denver omelet, and Fletcher asked for blueberry pancakes and blue raspberry soda.
    “There’s no such thing in nature as a blue raspberry,” I said to the waitress. “Why would you put something like that on the menu?”
    “I didn’t write the menu,” she said.
    I asked her for a cup of coffee. Bolted high up near the ceiling, above a bank of trashcans, a television was tuned to a talk show captioned, “Grown Men Who Want to Be Babied.” Half–naked men—hairy, bosomy, diapered men—sat in the laps of beautiful women and fielded questions from a jeering audience. The kids stared up at the screen, and I made them switch sides of the booth with me. Still, they craned their necks, gawking over their shoulders at the spectacle.
    The waitress brought our orders. I emptied packet after packet of sugar into my coffee and drank cup after cup.
    “All that sugar’s going to give you diabetes,” Caitlin said.
    “That’s not the way it works.”
    “Grandpa’s got diabetes.”
    “That’s Grandpa,” I said. “I’m me.”
    “Well, you’re going to wet your pants before we pull out of the parking lot.”
    Fletcher said, “When we get to Grandpa’s house, can we drive the golf car?”
    “It’s a golf cart,” Caitlin said, coming down hard on the t. “Not a golf car.”
    “That’s up to Grandpa,” I said.
     “Can we play Moppily at Grandpa’s house?” he asked.
    “It’s Mo–no–poly, stupid,” Caitlin said. “Not Moppily.”
    “Don’t you dare call your brother stupid,” I said, louder than I’d meant to, and I wondered if everyone in the restaurant could see my negative aura, toxic, radioactive. So, I tried to look happy, but the harder I acted normal and cheerful, the weirder and scarier I seemed to myself. “Sure,” I told Fletcher, wiping blueberry syrup off his cheek with a spit–moistened napkin. “Sure we’ll play Monopoly.”
    “What if some real millionaires played real Moppily for real?” he said. “What if they played with real money?”
    “That’s what real millionaires really do do,” Caitlin said, only now her eyes were on me, and she spoke as though she were talking me down from a ledge. “That’s how they get to be millionaires. They buy up property and mortgage it to buy more property and they just keep getting richer and richer.”
    When the kids finished breakfast, they asked me for change to play Wipe Out.
    “For Christ’s sake,” I said. “We’ve been driving since Boston and now you want me to give you money so we can drive some more?”
    “You’ve been driving since Boston,” Caitlin said. “We’ve been sitting there listening to oldies and Hank Williams. It’s child abuse.”
    “It’s a waste of money,” I said.
    “It’s driver’s ed.”
    Then Caitlin told us a story about a father who was stung by bees—yellow jackets—and lapsed into anaphylactic shock. His nine–year–old son, who played Wipe Out a whole lot, managed to get this father into the car and drive him to the hospital, saving his life, and all thanks to Wipe Out. Fletcher looked at me as though I’d been stung by yellow jackets, as though I were going to die. In the background Dion and the Belmonts were singing “Where or When.” I pushed a five–dollar bill across the table to Caitlin.
    “Bring back the change,” I said. “And make sure your brother gets a turn.”

Words fail me; they always have.
    When I was Fletcher’s age, I attended St. John of the Cross Catholic Grade School, in Tifton, New York. One day Sister Mary Martin stood before the class and decreed that, from that morning hence, we were allowed to go to the lavatory only if we raised our hands and told her that it was “an emergency.” An emergency.

    That afternoon I raised my hand and asked to go to the bathroom.
    “What’s the word, Francis?” she asked.
    “No, Francis, please is not the word,” she said. “What’s the right word?”
    “I don’t remember.”
    “Then let me help you,” she said. “It’s got four syllables.”
    I thought for a moment. “I have to use the laboratory.”
    Everyone laughed, everyone but Sister Mary Martin and I.
    “You’re not a stupid boy, Francis,” she said. “I know you’re not. Now, you’re going to sit there until the word comes to you.”
    But the word never came, and at the end of the day, I carried my corduroys home in a plastic bag. The old man was out of town—he was out of town a lot— and not expected home until the next day, which was all right by me.
    The following afternoon we were busy at our desks, practicing cursive, when I heard the jingle of change, and then a man’s voice filled the classroom.
    “May I have a word with you, Sister?” I looked up—we all looked up—and the old man filled the doorway. “A word?”
    From my desk I watched them in the hall. The old man towered over this nun like a gray flannel tsunami. She was literally standing in his shadow. He bent over her, his eyes level with hers, and it looked as though he might kiss her or kill her. I couldn’t hear what he was saying—she didn’t seem to be saying anything—but he punctuated whatever he said by jabbing his finger at her. He never touched her, but with every jab she’d wince, as if he were piercing some invisible membrane. She swooned, really swooned, and I felt sorry for her. She returned to the classroom, stricken, while the old man waited in the hallway, smoking a cigarette.
    “Francis?” she said in a voice all milk and honey. A strand of straw–colored hair curled out from under her wimple. “Francis Hardy?”
    Without a word the old man and I walked down the hall and out into the parking lot. Once the doors had shut behind us, he stood over me, just as he’d engulfed that nun. The sun glowered behind his head. He brought his face close to mine, as if reading some fine print there, and I could smell the tobacco on his breath.
    At last he said, “Jesus, Francis, why didn’t you just say the goddamned word?”

The kids and I arrived at the old man’s condo around half past eleven, and as I sat in the kitchen, watching him through the sliding glass door, it seemed impossible that he could ever have been as big as I remembered. He had on the same style of shorts as Fletcher, with the same elastic waistband, and even the same Velcro sneakers. Barelegged, he stood watering the begonias, while Fletcher rooted around in the dirt behind him. I was drinking coffee out of a mug encircled by cartoon rabbits. Above the rabbits the mug read, “A TWENTY–ONE BUN SALUTE.”
    When I was twelve, and the old man became president of P & P Packaging, Inc., he hauled us out of our ranch house in Giverny and into a much bigger house in Giverny Hills. The big house had a stopped–up laundry chute, an out–oftune baby grand that none of us could play, and a swimming pool—for my mother, he explained, as my mother loved to swim. But to my mother the pool was like the wheel in a hamster’s cage, and she hardly ever used it.
    You might say that, back then, the old man was putting on airs. For instance that first Christmas in the big house, Trout and I woke up to find a set of fencing equipment under the tree—foils, gloves, wire–mesh masks, the works—and for the old man’s amusement, we suited up right then and there and started dueling. Or at least I did; Trout just stood there, parrying, looking like a little hand grenade under all of that protection. I whapped him with the blunt tip of my foil and shouted, “Touchy!”
    “What did you say?” Trout asked, letting down his guard.
    “Touchy.” I thrust and lunged and pringed him again.
    “No, Francis,” he said. “You mean touché. Not touchy.” By this time he and the old man were beside themselves. I hit him again and again, but they wouldn’t stop laughing, and I didn’t stop hitting him until my mother took away my foil.
    Fletcher pushed past the old man and into the kitchen. “Look what I found.” He spilled a handful of dirt on the table. “Fossils.”
    “Those aren’t fossils, baby,” Carol said. “That’s just a dirty old screw.”
    “Yeah,” Caitlin said. “And that’s just a rock and that’s a rusty old bottle cap.”
    “No, it’s not,” Fletcher said. “That’s a fossil and that’s a fossil and—”
    “They’re all fossils,” the old man said. “Everything’s a fossil just waiting to happen. All this stuff.” With a wave of his hand, he took in the entire contents of the kitchen. “Someday you’ll find all of it in a museum.”
    I asked him about the store, how business was doing. I was looking for any available opening. I wanted to talk about the money.
    He said he didn’t follow the business, that he was out of that now, that all he owned was the building itself and the land it sat on, and so long as Trout paid him his rent every first of the month, the business was doing just fine.
    “Come over here,” he said. “I want to show you something.” He settled himself in his recliner, and I hunkered down on the edge of the sofa with my coffee mug. The television was on, with the sound turned off, the Dow Jones and Nasdaq sliding one on top of the other along the bottom of the screen in red and green ribbons.
    “Look at this.” He pressed a fingertip into the meat of his calf, as into a loaf of dough, leaving a deep dimple that wouldn’t disappear. “What do you think? Blood clot? Diabetes?”
    That’s when I raised the matter of the sixteen thousand dollars.
    Carol, who’d heretofore turned a deaf ear to the old man’s aches and pains, was suddenly all ears. “Oh, Francis,” she said, “we couldn’t do that,” and I could see what I was in for.
    “No,” the old man echoed, “we couldn’t do that. All we’ve got is what you see— this and the store property and the rent Trout pays us.”
    “That’s all the income we’ve got, honey,” Carol said.
    “The whole enchilada,” the old man said.
    “Can’t trust the stock market,” Carol said. “Only thing you can trust is real estate. Land doesn’t crash.”
    “It’s the one sure thing,” the old man said.
    I rolled the mug in my hands, looked at the ring of rabbits, counted the cottontails, and sure enough, there were twenty–one of them. I imagined some six–year–old unearthing this mug some summer day in the year 2525 out behind the begonias.
    “What if you mortgaged the land?” I asked. “What if you mortgaged the land and made me a little loan from the proceeds?”
    “I couldn’t do that to your brother,” the old man said.
    “No, we couldn’t do that to Trout,” Carol said.
    “I’m not asking you to do anything to Trout,” I said. “All I’m asking—”
    “You’d have to ask Trout,” he said. “You’d have to get his permission. If Trout signed off on it, then maybe I’d think about it. But I can’t go encumbering his legacy willy–nilly.”
    “His legacy?” I said. “What about my legacy?” I got up from the sofa and scooped the kids into the space between us. “What about their legacy?”
    Fletcher tugged at the old man’s hand and asked, “Can we go for a ride in the golf car?”
    “Golf cart,” Caitlin said. “May we go for a ride in the golf cart?”
    “Well, of course, there’s that, Francis,” the old man said, “but you really ought to talk to Trout.” He lifted Fletcher into his lap. “Now, who wants to drive that golf car?”

The last night I spent in the big house in Giverny Hills was two summers after my mother died, and a month after the old man had taken the cure. He’d gone to pieces after my mother’s death, a piece at a time, and then it was like one of those building demolitions with dynamite and a wrecking ball, only in his case it was drink. Trout left Notre Dame after his sophomore year to look after him. The cure had taken as much out of the old man as the crack–up.
    The old man, Trout, and I sat around the kitchen table, sharing a lemon meringue pie and a jar of jalapeño peppers. A lamp dangled over the table. All around us was darkness. Big furry moths bumped up against the kitchen window. Trout sat at the head of the table, papers spread out before him, and though he’d always been the runt, he seemed somehow bigger than the old man, bigger than the both of us. The old man nursed a glass of iced tea, and Trout drank iced tea too. One after another we placed the pepper stems around the rim of the pie plate.
    Trout delivered a sort of presentation, the gist of which was the importance of putting a positive spin on our mother’s death, of seeing it as a second chance, of seizing the moment. It was pretty hard to take. He said that for all the tragedy and sorrow, there was a silver lining: the old man was lucky; he could still afford to reinvent himself, write his own ticket, start his life all over again and on his own terms. Sure, some damage had been done, he said, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. He’d reduced it all to a chart. There was this much left—this much money and this much time.
    “What I’m telling you is that that side of the line stands for your old life.” Trout’s stubby little finger traced a blue line on the chart. He’d drawn it like a sort of scorecard, with the blue line representing our mother’s death. “That was the front nine,” he said. “That’s all gone now. On this side is your new life, your life now—the back nine.” He looked up at the old man with a salesman’s smug little smile. “So what do you want to be when you grow up?”
    I sipped a bottle of beer. The old man’s eyes followed the bottle to my lips. Trout started to say something to me, but the old man stopped him. “No, it’s all right. Go ahead, kid. Drink.” Then he turned back to Trout and said, “I always wanted to run a hardware store.”
    I had to laugh.
    “No,” Trout said, ignoring me. “Go on.”
    And so the old man laid out his hardware dream like a kid dictating his Christmas list. Phillips screwdrivers and ball–peen hammers, penny nails and hedge clippers, seed packets and weed whackers. I couldn’t stomach any of it. I got up from the table and stood at the French doors that opened onto the deck and the swimming pool. I looked out at the dark water on the other side of the glass, but I couldn’t see past the reflection of my father and my brother huddled behind me in the lemony light.

Hardy Hardware was on the other side of Giverny from the old man’s condo, but I wasn’t ready to face Trout, not yet. Along the way, I passed the cemetery where my mother was buried, and though I’ve always considered myself an ashes–to–ashes sort of guy (it’s real estate and we become real estate and that’s that), I hadn’t visited her grave since we buried her twenty–one years before, and it seemed as good a way as any to kill some time.
    She died the day before Halloween, a week after I’d left the school at the Chicago Art Institute for a job at an advertising agency four blocks up Michigan Avenue. Trout called. He’d started at Notre Dame the month before.
    “It’s Mom,” he said. “She’s gone and drowned herself.”
    The old man had been out of town. A gang of trick–or–treaters found her floating in the swimming pool, her orange hair fanned out around her head. In the casket her hair spilled through a loop of blue ribbon over a frilly pink pillow, and her face looked bloated—from drinking or drowning or the undertaker’s doing. The funeral home was still decorated for Halloween, the carved smiles on the jack–o’–lanterns already collapsing. The trees at the cemetery were colored like fancy mustard, like cayenne pepper, like burnt oranges. Overnight, there’d been a frost, and crunching through the freeze–dried leaves was like marching through potato chips.
    Though the cemetery had been new when we buried her—as new as Giverny, itself, and like most of the village, carved out of a cornfield—now it seemed crowded, and it took me a long time to find her grave. It was marked by a big bland headstone with HARDY chiseled up near the top and my mother’s name and pertinent dates below in smaller letters. The ground was parched, and it occurred to me, as if for the first time, that I had outlived my mother. It wasn’t that I was alive and she wasn’t, but that I was older than she’d ever been or ever would be. And though I’ve never believed in the resurrection of the body and all that, it struck me as obscene that she should spend eternity alone here, landlocked.
     Across a narrow road sprinkler heads dotted the cemetery like metal dandelions, sizzling in the sun. I crossed the road and cupped my hands around a jet of water, spraying the front of my pants. I tried to carry handfuls of water back to my mother’s plot and pour it onto the dry turf, but the water spilled or trickled through my fingers. What did I expect to accomplish? Did I think I could water her grave and grow myself another living, breathing mother? I hadn’t slept since Boston, so I lay myself down and dreamed. I dreamed I was deep under the Boston Common, down in the catacombs of the Park Street subway station. Someone somewhere was plink–plonking “Where or When” on a kettledrum. And then we stood in a crowded subway car, my mother and I, she clutching the high metal rail in one hand and my hand in the other. That was all. We just stood there, holding hands, as the train bumped along, deep below the graves of Paul Revere, James Otis, and Mother Goose.

An enormous hammer clenched in a giant’s disembodied fist was fixed on a pole high above Hardy Hardware. To the left of the unpaved parking lot, across a vacant field, a miniature golf course sprawled across another lot, as if that same giant had spilled a box of toys. Inside, the store was dingy and dim, with that dusty hardware smell. Behind the counter stood a young woman. She had copper–colored hair and wore a forest green polo shirt with that hammer logo and Debbie stitched in cursive over her breast pocket.
    “Help you find something?” she asked.
    “Just looking.”
    “Looking for what?”
    “For Trout.”
    “Trout’s at lunch.”
    “Lunch?” I said. “It’s after two.”
    “He’s the boss.” She shrugged. “If you’re really desperate, you could probably find him just down the road at Adam’s Ribs.”
    I told her I wasn’t that desperate, that I’d wait. There was one other customer, some old guy parked in front of the pest control shelf, scouring the fine print on the back of this or that box of poison, box after box. I looked at the bird feeders. Whenever I glanced up at the counter, I caught this Debbie watching me. So, for something to say, I said, “That’s some hammer you’ve got out there.”
    “You’re Francis, aren’t you?” she asked. “Trout’s brother.”
    “What gives you that idea?”
    “Because you look just like Frank. Big Frank.”
    “Big Frank, huh?”
    “Trout never mentioned you coming.”
    “It’s sort of a surprise.”
    She came around the counter, and I saw that she was big with child. The polo shirt ballooned in front of her, and the button of her navel pushed out against the fabric. Roundness pleases—pleases me, anyway—and I felt lightened just looking at her.
    “Frank says you’re an artist,” she said.
    “You’re not an artist unless they pay you for it.”
    “Oh no,” she said. “Oh no, no, no. You paint portraits?” But before I could answer, she said, “Because I want you to paint mine. You know: naked—and soon, like this.” She cradled her belly. “Before the baby comes. I mean, I’d pay you and everything. I want to remember what it was like, what I was like.”     “Why don’t you just have your husband take your picture?”
    “I don’t have a husband,” she said, “and a photograph just isn’t the same. You know that. Besides, who’d take my picture?”
    “Anyone can take a picture,” I said. “It’s quick and it’s cheap.”
    “I don’t care how much it costs,” she said. “And I can’t get naked in front of just anyone. But I could get naked for you. It’s different with an artist. It’s like with a doctor.”
    Just then the door swung open and in walked Trout, the afternoon blazing behind him. As soon as he saw me, he took a baby step backward, as if he’d stepped in wet cement. Like I said he’s a small man, and in the five years since I’d last seen him, he’d gone to fat. He was wearing the same polo shirt as Debbie— same shade of green, same logo—but it didn’t suit him, didn’t please. Before he could back out, I moved in and shook his hand. It was harder and rougher than mine and sticky with barbecue sauce.
    “How are you, Francis?” he said. “Still drawing comic books?”
“No more comics,” I said.     “No more Adventures of Jesus?”
    “Jesus ran out of adventures.” Now that I was here, I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. But what I did have to say, I had to say alone. I didn’t need any witnesses, and I hadn’t counted on this Debbie standing around, gawking at us.
    “I wanted to take you to lunch,” I said.
    “I just ate.”
    I looked past him, through the window, across the parking lot and the field to the miniature golf course, its turrets and minarets rising Arabian Nights–like in the wavery heat.
    “Let’s play golf,” I said.
    Trout looked at Debbie.
    “Come on,” I said. “You’re the boss. Don’t tell me that you can’t take a coffee break—just long enough to shoot eighteen holes. Come on. Eighteen lousy miniature holes.”
    “I’ve got that shipment of railroad ties due in around three–thirty,” he said to Debbie.
    “Oh, go on,” she said. “Live a little. I’ll send Billy over if you’re not back before they get here.”
    This wasn’t what he wanted to hear. “Give me a minute,” he grumbled and shuffled back into the bowels of Hardy Hardware, Master of All He Surveyed.
    “Well, that was underwhelming,” Debbie said.
    “Come again?”
    “I’d say you two have an intimacy problem,” she said. “Wouldn’t you say you have an intimacy problem? I mean, look at the two of you. It’s been how many years? And when you greet each other, you might just as well be perfect strangers.”
    “Our family was never what you’d call touchy–feely,” I said.
    “You know why humans started shaking hands?”
    “I’m talking about the origins of the handshake,” she said. “You know where it comes from, how it started?”
    “I’ve got a pretty good idea, but why don’t you tell me anyway.”
    She took my hand. “To make sure the other guy wasn’t carrying a weapon.” She grasped my forearm with her other hand. “And that’s in case you had a dagger up your sleeve.” She looked me in the face. “When I was growing up, I couldn’t go to bed without a kiss from both my parents. Even when I was in high school, they’d kiss me flush on the mouth, and I never thought twice about it. It never occurred to me that there was anything strange or unnatural about it.”
    Who was this Debbie to be telling me all this?
    “Do you even know me?” I said.
    “I feel like I know you.”
    “Well, you don’t know me. And I don’t know you. So let’s make a deal.” My eyes raked the swell of her belly. “I’ll deal with my intimacy problem and you deal with yours.”
    I knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as I’d said it, an ugly thing. She let go of my hand, and I felt untethered, like an astronaut cut loose from the mother ship, lost in space. She went to attend to the old guy at pest control, and I just stood there watching them until Trout came back, a daub of barbecue sauce still smeared across his cheek.
    “I’ll be back soon,” he called to Debbie.
    “Enjoy,” she said, without looking up.
    “Pleased to meet you, Debbie,” I said, but it was like I wasn’t there.

Miniature golf must be a nocturnal pastime, because at half past two the course was like a morgue. At seven bucks a pop, it was my treat. We chose our balls: turquoise for me, orange for Trout. The kid behind the counter gave us a pair of putters, a scorecard, and a stubby little pencil with which Trout kept score.
    For nine holes we barely said a word—I was working up my nerve—and then Trout said, “Well, I’ve got those railroad ties coming in any minute now.”
    “Forget your railroad ties,” I said. “You’re the boss, aren’t you?”
    “Yeah, well, that’s the thing.”
    “We haven’t even talked,” I said. “We’ve played nine holes and in all that time you never once asked me about my kids.”
    “Did you ask about mine?” he said.
    “You haven’t asked about Maureen.”
    “You want to talk about Maureen?”
    “You never asked me about me.”
    “What is it, Francis?” he asked. “Is it money?”
    “I don’t want your money,” I said. “I’ve got a proposition for you.”
    “A proposition?”
    Then I told him what I came to tell.
    “I don’t know,” he said, looking everywhere but at me.
    “It’s not as though I were asking you for something that wasn’t already mine,” I said. “Look at it as a sort of advance on my inheritance. It wouldn’t even involve you.”
    “Of course it involves me,” he said. “You don’t seem to get it. This is my life.” He waved his hand out across the brown field, toward the big hammer hanging there in the distance, and I saw that he was the hammer, and I was the nail.
    I proposed a wager.
    “The back nine for the whole enchilada,” I said.
    “Are you crazy?”
     “All right, then: the back and the front. You’re already three up on me. I win, you’ll sign off on the mortgage; you win, I’ll never bother you again.”
    He just stared at me.
    “You’ll be through with me, no matter what,” I said. “Free and clear. Cross my heart.”     He stood there a moment longer, shaking his head, not saying anything. Then he bent down and put his ball on the tenth tee.
    I’ve never been an athlete or a fan. Blow–by–blow accounts of athletic contests work like a morphine drip on me. But let me say that, starting with the tenth hole, Trout’s game went to pieces, while my own improved in inverse proportion. We moved through a landscape of castles and volcanoes, of windmills and waterfalls. I shot a beautiful game, so beautiful that, for a time, I’d forgotten what I was playing for. By the fourteenth hole we were tied, and by the seventeenth I was three up on him.
    The seventeenth hole lay on the other side of a stream that fed into a cement pond. To reach the green, you had to hit the ball over a stream and into a big spinning roulette wheel that, depending on the breaks, would drop your ball near or far from the cup, and it was only when my ball fell far from the cup and Trout said, “Pick it up; that’s a gimme,” that I realized he’d been throwing the game.
    The fountain at the center of the pond wasn’t running. The water was stagnant and dyed a chemical blue, blue raspberry, the color of toilet bowl cleanser. I stood over Trout, my face close to his.
    “What’s up, Francis?” he asked, behind that smug smile of his.
    “You’re not through with me,” I jabbed my finger at him, my other hand closed tight around the business end of my putter. “Love isn’t some fungible commodity.”
    “Love.” I was crying now.
    His smirk had evaporated, and his eyes were wide with alarm, like Fletcher’s eyes at breakfast that morning as he listened to Caitlin’s story about the yellow jackets.
    “Francis,” Trout said. He touched my shoulder.
    “Love is not a truckload of railroad ties.”
    “What are you talking about?” he said, taking his place in that line of impenetrables stretching all the way from first grade to divorce court.
    Twenty–four hours of caffeine and adrenaline fizzed in my blood and my brain. I considered what injury I could inflict with this golf club right then and there. I could beat him senseless with its rubber head and then hold his face under the blue–blue water. Or maybe I could twist off its head and run its sharp shaft through his thick black heart.
    I looked past him, past the chemical blue water and the dead field beyond, at that big hammer poised above Hardy Hardware. A flatbed truck growled into the parking lot, gravel popping under its tires. The door to the store opened, like the door on a cuckoo clock, and Debbie emerged, shielding her eyes with one hand, the other smoothing the globe of her belly. Through the blur of my tears, her hair caught the sun, turning it bright orange. She wasn’t looking at the truck or its driver; she was looking out across the field, toward the seventeenth green. She was looking at me. I waved, and she might have waved back, or maybe she just brushed back her hair. As her other hand played over her belly, I could feel the world turn under her fingers, and so help me God, I didn’t care about those sixteen thousand dollars. All I wanted was to paint this woman’s picture.
    I took my putter and hit a tight chip shot into the middle of the pond. I looked at Trout, and I could see the boy he’d once been, now buried in this body, encased in his cage of gristle and fat. I dropped my club, wrapped my arms around him, and kissed him, flush on the mouth. Why? Maybe for the same reason I’d poured water on my mother’s grave; maybe I wanted to raise the dead. Or maybe I was out to prove something to this other redhead, who was now directing the driver to some spot out behind the building.
    But a kiss never fixed anything, not in my experience. My brother’s mouth tasted of barbecue, of ashes and vinegar, and he moved away from me, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. I looked back across the field, and Debbie was waving at me, no doubt about it this time.
    Trout sat down in the fake grass and pulled off his shoes and socks. He rolled up his pant–legs, and with tiny steps, he waded out into the poisonous water. He stooped over, bringing up ball after ball, until, red–faced and panting, he held up the turquoise ball as if it were some sort of trophy. Then he pulled the scorecard from his back pocket and read aloud, “One stroke penalty if ball leaves fairway.”
    What can I tell you? Trout waddled to the edge of the pond, slippery and steep, and there we were, two half–orphans under the murderous sun. He reached up, and I gave him my hand. With his other hand he took hold of my forearm. So, what else could I do? I pulled him up.

Charles Haverty lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, with his wife, daughter, son, and dog. His first published story, ‘‘Fontanel,’’ appeared in these pages two years ago. His fiction has since appeared or is forthcoming in Agni, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Ecotone, and Salamander.

“The Back Nine” appears in our Spring 2006 issue.