Sunday, November 4, 2012

Off The Fairway

(Writer's note: Over the past few months I have been writing a novel. The following is the opening excerpts.)

“Man, it’s hot,” Shakes said to Billy.
It was a typical Midwestern summer afternoon. Uncomfortably muggy. Air you wear.
Billy Edwards was toweling down his face for what seemed like the umpteenth time as he strode up the eighteenth fairway at the Bear Creek Country Club in Joplin, Missouri. On this Saturday, Billy had played himself into earshot of the lead in the Show Me State Open with a bogey-free six under par. He knew that one more birdie and he would post a very satisfying 65, which would put him one shot behind the leader and playing alongside him the next day with the title on the line. Right where I want to be, thought Billy. I can stare down Phillips, and then take him down.
Phillips was Freddie Phillips, three-time winner on the tour already this year, gunning for his fourth win and first-place on the Tour’s money list. The $800,000 first prize would all but assure that. Phillips was already in the clubhouse with an up-and-down round of two under 70. His four-shot lead at the beginning of the day could shrink to one if Billy could coax one more putt to fall.
As Billy approached the green the gallery reactively began to applaud. But it was not the typical enthusiastic swelling applause reserved for the, well, Freddie Phillipses of the tour. It was more of a courtesy applause given to a player who is not a fan favorite. Instead was a begrudging way to acknowledge a talented person doing their talented thing.
Billy recognized it. “Fuck them. I’ll get them back on my side,” he snarled under his breath as he doffed his cap to the crowd with a tight smile that more resembled a grimace.
He then turned his attention to his 18-foot birdie putt. With the assist of Shakes, his weathered, much-younger-than-his-face-showed caddy, they got the read down. Two balls outside right lip, cup speed. Don’t get frisky with it, die it into the hole. Billy went though his pre-shot routine permanently hard-wired into his psyche via rote repetition. Two practice swings. Deep breath. Place the Ping B-60 putter behind the ball; look at the hole, back to the putter, back to the hole, back to putter. Keep the head still. Swing.
The putt came off exactly as Shakes instructed; two balls outside the right lip of the hole. For the longest time it looked like it would stay like that, not taking the break but sliding by on the right. Then in the last three feet the ball, almost on command, broke hard to the left and tracked into the dead center of the hole.
“Like it had eyes,” said Shakes.
The applause was sudden, powerful. Billy gave his trademark fist-slam move, where he started his hand at his temple and brought it down hard and fast, as if he was hammering a nail. He let out a “Fuck yeah!” that was, fortunately for him, drowned out by the crowd. Retrieving the ball from the cup, he turned to the crowd, took off his cap, and mouthed a ‘Thank You’ as his playing partner finished out. Shakes came over and gave him a well-deserved hard handshake that Billy responded to equally. It was as if Shakes’ handshake was saying Great stroke, and Billy’s was saying No…great read, Shakes. Such was their relationship – one of mutual admiration and trust.
Walking to the scorer’s tent through a line of fans, most were supportive. “Great round Billy! Take down Freddie tomorrow! Billy Edwards is back!” But there were also a couple of wiseasses interspersed. “We’ve seen this before Billy…How you gonna eff this one up, Cuz?”
Billy was used to it all – the good and the bad. And besides, he was just trying to get to the scorer’s tent so he could post his 65, answer a few questions in the press tent then just relax. He signed his card and then took a look at the scoreboard that indeed confirmed he stood one stroke behind Phillips. He talked to a few reporters outside, and then decided he was going to hit the range for about an hour, take the courtesy car back to the hotel, order room service and get plenty of rest. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
When he got to the range he pulled the cell phone out of his golf bag that had been shut off since before teeing off that morning. A few voice messages, a couple of texts. But there was one that caught his eye, and it totally entranced him –

Nice round. Gonna need anything tonight?

That was when Billy knew he had no chance to win the Show Me State Open.


Billy looked up to see a church built what appeared to be at least a century ago – Queen of Peace Catholic Church, in the heart of Charlotte, North Carolina. This is stupid, Billy thought, as he eased the Buick into a parking spot just as another thought hit him, No, you’re the stupid one. Just get this over with. Billy had a lot of voices going on in his head which created, at times, a cacophonous din which he pleaded to stop but could never make do so.
Getting out of the car, he referred to the meeting guide he printed off the website. Yep, this is the place. Next to the building stood about ten people who were smoking cigarettes and laughing. Fucking alcoholics with their chain-smoking, said the judgmental voice that seemed to be a permanent part of Billy’s chorus of cranial critics.
Attached to the meeting guide was a slip of paper that resembled an affidavit – I _____ hereby vouch that I attended the ____ meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous on this ____ day of ____, with a space below for a signature.
I should just forge this fucker and hit the closest bar, said the destructive voice. Dude, just do this. It won’t hurt you. Besides, Halsmith isn’t going to let you play this week if you don’t, said the rational voice. Fuck Halsmith, that paper-pushing hack who couldn’t break par on tour so he kissed ass to become tour commissioner, said the judgmental voice.  Hate him if you want, Billy Boy, but he’s got you by the balls, said the logical voice. Maybe I could call some guys who could fix this for me said the dope fiend voice.
            After all sides were heard from, Billy walked into the church.
“Good evening! Welcome to Alcoholics Anonymous!” chirped an obese elderly lady whose body resembled a bowling ball. Her hand was stuck out, demanding to be grasped. “Uh Hi…” mumbled Billy, as he shook her hand. “Where’s the coffee?”
“Why, it’s right around the corner, hon. Make yourself at home, and keep coming back!” Billy blurted out a “Yeah, okay” without taking the time to explain to the Human Ebonite that he was only here for the week, and he was about to put Charlotte in his rear-view mirror. The next stop was Memphis.
But first he had to take care of business if he wanted to see the first tee at Memphis. He had to get that paper signed.
The meeting began with a man who was probably in his mid-fifties but looked much older, pounding a gavel. “All right, let’s settle down. My name is Frank and I am an Alcoholic.” A dutiful chorus of “HI FRANK” resonated from the fifty or so people in attendance. A young man in his twenties read from a blue book. An attractive woman with way too much makeup read from a laminated document, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path…”
When she finished Frank then spoke, “Do we have any newcomers or visitors in attendance?”
Billy could feel the eyes move towards him even though his head was down. He was filtering through the various thoughts his cranial chorus was spitting out. Realizing the uncomfortable pause, he looked up and saw the eyes were trained on him.
“Oh, uh, hello, my name’s Bill…Billy.”
The pause continued. The group wanted more.
“Oh yeah, I uh, I’m an Alcoholic.”
That prompted some chuckles, the dutiful “HI BILLY!” and a couple of “Keep coming back” well-wishers. Billy’s mind went into hyper-drive. Fucking sheep, was the first thought that crossed his mind as he forced a thin smile.
Frank then spoke. “Okay. Welcome Billy. Now, does anyone have a topic for tonight’s meeting?” followed by another long pause.
What the fuck, thought Billy, Don’t these people have anything to say? You mean they get together in the piece of shit church basement and chant their shit, read their propaganda, then fucking look at each other? How in the fuck am I supposed to get anything out of this? What’s the fucking point of all this? When can I get this God-DAMN paper signed?
Frank then broke the silence. “Maybe our newcomer would like to say a few words,” as the gazes were trained back on Billy. Taken aback by the interruption to his stream of unconsciousness, Billy was not prepared.
“Uh, no, that’s okay. I am just visiting…”
Tell this half-inflated basketball head to go fuck himself, said the angry voice in Billy’s head. Nah, make up some shit, said the egomaniac. Billy, filtering through all this, finally said “Uh yeah. I am in town for a tournament…a golf tournam…well, I mean, I’m not from here…”
“OOH! You’re a professional golfer?” asked Bowling Ball Lady.
“Yes. Yes I am. Anyway, you asked why I am here. To be honest, I am here to get this paper signed,” as Billy pulled the affidavit from his pocket. That elicited laughter from the crowd. Tell these inbred yokels to jam it up their ass sideways, said vindictive voice. Calm down, keep your cool, said inside the gallery ropes voice.
“Ah, the old nudge from the judge eh?” said Frank.
Billy looked puzzled, and then he got it. “Oh, uh no, It’s not like that. Commissioner Halsmith is making me attend these meetings in order for me stay on the tour. Last month I withdrew from a tournament in New Orleans because I was…”
The group had turned their collective attention towards Billy and he realized it. He was about to say he was arrested for attempting to buy cocaine from an undercover cop, showed up the next morning for his 7:43 a.m. tee time, played the first nine holes in six over par and was forced to withdraw by the rules officials.
“…Because I was hung over.”
Two days after the arrest in New Orleans Billy got a letter from Commissioner Halsmith’s office, informing him to be at his office that Tuesday. It was at that meeting that Halsmith gave Billy one more chance, informing him that he had the authority to suspend him from the tour, or to banish him outright. He could have told Billy to go make his living over in Europe – there was no room on this tour for a player with the issues he has. But Halsmith didn’t do that. Instead, he required Billy to go through counseling followed by regular AA meeting attendance. He also made it clear this was the final chance. One more questionable tournament withdraw, one more outburst, one more report from any volunteer at any event that Billy was anything but totally professional and you can try to scrape out a living on the Australasian Tour…if they will have you.
Billy got the message, kind of. Like a good addict he knew when his back was against the wall and that it was time to fly straight. So the outbursts stopped. But Billy had found another way to feed the beast, and it was a brutally simple one. Just play bad. Purposely miss the cut. Not that he could do that forever, but he had enough money in his bank account to last at least a year out on the tour. So what if he bagged it a couple of times? Guys miss cuts all the time.
So here he was in Charlotte, at an AA meeting, trying to explain to people he didn’t know why he was there.
So he lied. Billy was an expert at lying.
Frank thanked Billy for sharing and then turned to the group. “Okay I think we have a topic for the meeting. Let’s talk about denial.”
Denial?!? thought Billy. Was that some kind of slap at me, you fuckface? I will come across this motherfucking table at you so fast that you will not know what hit you.
What Billy didn’t realize was that Frank was a four-handicap golfer and an ardent follower of the tour. He knew who Billy was. He also knew of the arrest in New Orleans so he knew Billy wasn’t just hung over. Frank was also a volunteer at the tournament that Billy was playing in that week. He was actually honored to have Billy at the meeting and was holding back the urge to ask him for an autograph.
Frank was also sober for fifteen years and could smell bullshit from a mile away, and Billy was reeking of it.
At the end of the meeting, Billy took his paper up to the podium to be signed. Realizing he had a moment alone, Frank seized the opportunity and said, “U.S. Amateur Champion Billy Edwards. It’s an honor.” Billy was almost embarrassed by that, but was also buoyed with pride. “I still remember how you came from four down in the morning match to dust off Angel Hernandez in the finals three and two. That approach you hit to the sixteenth was a thing of beauty.” Billy stumbled out thanks. Frank continued. “What in the hell happened, Billy? Everyone thought you were the next great thing. Well hell, the fact you’re in an AA meeting I can guess what happened. I read the papers. Did you really punch that waiter in Portland? Ah never mind. Look, here’s my phone number. Call me anytime, but preferably before you take a drink, okay?”
Billy said sure. He put the signed paper in his shirt pocket and left the church.
On his way out he threw Frank’s phone number in the trash.

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