The Boy Behind the Tree
My father and I were on the third tee at Wildwood when a boy in a red golf shirt stepped from behind an oak tree next to the ball washer. “Mind if I join you?” he asked.
He was about my age, fifteen, although there was a toughness about him—the squint in his eyes, the wiry muscles in his neck and forearms—I associated with older boys. He no doubt drove his older brother’s motorcycle even if he was too young to have a license. I was sure he had access to drugs—reason enough to attract friends of both sexes. I was jealous of him immediately.
After waving him onto the tee, my father told the boy, “I had a birdie on number two. Tell me you beat it, and you’re either lying or you’ve got a tour card in your pocket.”
The boy smiled, not in the smug way I did in response to my father’s attempts at humor, but with genuine amusement. His teeth were crooked enough so they gave him a rough, authentic appearance but not so crooked as to make him look like a hillbilly. (I had been wearing braces for two years.)
“I had a par,” the boy said. “I was putting for birdie but a leaf was in the way. Stopped my ball an inch short.”
“You sure it wasn’t Big Foot who did it?” my father asked.
The boy’s laugh sounded like backfiring engines. I could tell he and my father were going to be friends. And I was right: Over the next sixteen holes, my father told golf jokes he’d told me at least twice, but this time they received an enthusiastic reception. And the boy—his name, we learned on the fifth fairway, was Jack—had his own jokes, more graphic than my father’s. My father laughed at all of them.
Wildwood was one of only two courses in our hometown of Sherman, Ohio, that didn’t require golfers to use carts, which is why my father preferred it. He needed the exercise, he said, because of his blood pressure, his cholesterol level, and his indulgence in an occasional cigarette. After we played a round, my father and I would stop for a Coke and a hotdog in the clubhouse—far from a heart-friendly snack, it’s true, but we’d earned it, my father always said—and I would catch him up on my life.
My parents were divorced, and I saw my father only once every month. His construction company had grown so large he had to devote most of his daylight hours to it. But he’d once had time to assist the football and baseball coaches at the high school where I was now a sophomore. In his fantasies, he had a son who played quarterback in the fall and shortstop in the spring, with scholarship offers in both sports pouring in from colleges across the country.
I believe these fantasies started when I was in the womb. The year I turned five, he signed me up for every sports camp open to boys my age. But while I didn’t mind throwing or kicking a football, I dreaded being tackled. Wherever the action was on the field, I stayed as far from it as I could, as if I might catch a disease. I liked baseball even less. I lived in constant fear of the pitcher beaning me or a fly ball landing on my head.
Coaches were happy to let me sit on the bench, and I was happy to be safe from harm and humiliation. Even so, my father came to every game, and sometimes he was rewarded when I made an appearance in the fourth quarter or the ninth inning of a lopsided matchup.
When I was in the eighth grade and my sister a senior in high school, my father and mother announced they were divorcing. Even so, they lived with each other during the next eleven-and-a-half months. During the Year of Acrimony, as my sister came to call it, our parents seemed to forget about us. Seizing her opportunity, my sister applied only to colleges in the West, eventually deciding on the University of Arizona. I, meanwhile, severed all my connections to athletics, even though I knew I risked widening the divide between my father and me. Turning in my last uniform was like handing over a prison outfit. In the fall, I joined the chess club and the drama club and was appointed secretary of the English club—an unprecedented honor for a ninth-grader.
My father, who was forty-four-years old, set up bachelor’s quarters in an apartment complex on the edge of Partytown, the student-dominated section of Sherman, and attached himself to a red-haired hardware store employee named Sierra. But he hadn’t given up on making his son an athlete. He had a new plan for me: golf.
“In golf, you don’t have to be afraid of the ball,” he assured me. “In fact, the ball should be afraid of you.”
A week later, I had my first lesson, at Wildwood, with the course’s golf pro, Sherwood Anderson, who shared a name with an Ohio fiction writer I’d lately been reading. Mr. Anderson was wrinkled and tan, so wrinkled and tan he looked like he’d been stewed in a pot of boiling wood refinisher. He could no longer hit the ball far, but he always hit it straight, and sometimes as he was instructing me, he’d hit a dozen or more shots in succession, ostensibly to teach me but mostly, I suspected, because he felt like it.
I enjoyed golf no more than I did any of the sports I’d tried—nor was I any better at it than I’d been at the others—and I looked forward to the end of a round as if it were the end of a school day. So when my father allowed Jack, whom I disliked at first glance, to play with us in our first round of the year, it gave me one more reason to hate the game. Although Jack’s golf bag looked like the sack of a homeless Santa Claus and his clubs appeared to be made from bamboo, he proved himself a good golfer—no, an excellent golfer. No matter that Jack’s English was to language what a truck stop café is to fine dining, he hit shots my father whistled at the way certain men whistle at women.
Jack inspired my father to play his best. I’d never seen my father so focused, so intense—or so joyful. By the twelfth hole, a par four with a creek curling in front of the green, my father and Jack had begun to bet: twenty-five cents a hole. Both of them cleared the creek with their second shots. I put both my third and fourth shots in the muddy middle of it. “You’re scaring the fish,” my father said with a smile, and Jack laughed his rat-a-tat-tat laugh.
In appearance, my father wasn’t unlike Jack. He had dramatic features: deep-set eyes, a long nose, and muscles he’d toned as a boy on his family’s farm outside of Sherman. His hair was black like Jack’s, although the one time he grew a beard, it came in gray.
For the rest of the round, my father said perhaps a dozen words to me. It was as if I weren’t playing the same hole as he and Jack. They’d boom their tee shots, and I’d dribble mine. As I hacked in the rough, they stood together in the fairway, conferring in whispers. Jack was nearly as tall as my father, who was at least three inches taller than I was, and he immediately picked up one of my father’s favorite expressions: “Sing hallelujah to the Lord of the Links,” shouted after an especially good shot.
The only time Jack acknowledged me was when, on the sixteenth hole, I took a vicious swing—born of a growing anger with how the day was going—and missed the ball entirely. “Strike one,” he said, and although he’d spoken softly, I’m sure my father heard him because he chuckled before pretending to cough.
At the end of the round, Jack owed my father a quarter. After pausing, perhaps to contemplate the penny-sized hole in the right sleeve of Jack’s ragged golf shirt, my father said, “We’ll keep a running tab. I’m sure we’ll see each other again. I hope so, anyway.”
As Jack turned to go—headed away from the parking lot, which meant he had come to the course without a motorized vehicle—my father said, “Why don’t you join us for a hotdog and Coke?”
I’m sure my face revealed exactly how I felt about the prospect of Jack joining us. But Jack didn’t look at me. “I appreciate it, Mr. Graver,” he said. “Maybe next time.”
“Definitely next time,” my father insisted.
Giving a short wave, almost a salute, Jack turned and walked off into the April afternoon.
“He probably has work he needs to get to,” my father said, “like I did at his age.”
After picking up hotdogs and Cokes at the clubhouse café, we sat on the veranda overlooking the eighteenth green. My father said if Jack didn’t play golf for his high- school team, it was a shame. “He could probably play college golf right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s being recruited.” My father wondered whether Jack played other sports. “He looks like a second baseman,” he said. “Or a scrappy third baseman. If he plays football, I bet he’s a cornerback.”
We were done eating by the time my father turned his deep-set eyes to me. “So what’s new in your life?” he asked.
Ordinarily, I would have unburdened myself of whatever was on my mind: girls, classes, the week’s news, girls. But I felt a wild resentment of all the time he’d spent playing with, and talking about, Jack, so I shook my head. “Nothing much,” I said. “We should go.”
My father and I played again in May, and Jack met us on the course, in his usual spot. I accused my father of arranging the meeting, but he denied he had. When, during our round, my father asked Jack if he bothered to pay greens fees or simply started his round at the third hole, Jack blushed and apologized profusely, as if he had somehow injured my father with his transgression. My father laughed and said he used to sneak onto courses all the time when he was Jack’s age. “Besides,” my father said, “good golfers barely disturb the course. It’s the duffers who tear it to shreds and keep the greenskeepers sweating.”
Jack laughed his backfiring engine laugh and shot me a glance, perhaps to see if I, unquestionably a duffer, had taken offense. I fired back a grin. Two days earlier, I’d kissed Jessica Sanders, the treasurer of the English Club. We’d been discussing a D.H. Lawrence novel when it happened. Golf seemed inconsequential compared to Jessica’s red lips and braces-free teeth.
As before, my father and Jack ribbed one another and applauded each other’s shots while I trailed them, hacking away as if my clubs were farm tools. I could have planted several gardens. I tried to think about Jessica Sanders—about how her lips had felt, about when I would kiss her next—but my father’s and Jack’s conversation intruded like an alarm clock into a dream.
On the eighteenth tee, I hit my ball deep into the woods, and while I was in no rush to find it, I was furious when, a few minutes later, I saw my father and Jack on the green, three hundred yards distant, finishing their rounds with tap-in putts. They slapped each other high fives, then walked off the course as if they’d forgotten all about me. Perhaps they had.
I didn’t bother finishing my round, but marched straight toward the parking lot, where I stood beside my father’s Mercedes, my arms crossed, until he came along, pulling his golf bag. “No Coke and hotdog?” he asked, but he had already unlocked the doors. “I didn’t think you were ever coming out of the woods,” he said.
“I was considering becoming the next Thoreau,” I replied.
“One of golf’s pioneers,” he said, smiling, although I put the odds at no better than 50-50 that he knew who Thoreau was.
In June, my father and Sierra spent ten days in Toronto, where her family lived, while my mother and I met my sister in Phoenix and drove to the Grand Canyon.
When I was younger, the times I felt closest to my father were on long car rides. My mother and sister would fall asleep, their heads against windows, and my father would tell me about his uncles, Hank and Sam, who, as they grew up, were in constant competition with each other. They’d compete to be the first in the bathroom in the morning, the first to step on the school bus, the first to kiss a girl. They played football, of course, in the days before players wore helmets, or so my father claimed. His best Hank-and-Sam stories were of their most dangerous competitions—swims up raging rivers, hikes down mountains at dusk without flashlights. Although their feats in these tales seemed superhuman—certainly far beyond what I could imagine myself doing—I found the stories riveting, and my father’s voice overcame its Midwestern flatness and gained an inexorable rhythm as he told them.
When the four of us stopped going on family vacations, my mother tried to make up for my father’s absence with books-on-tape. But even when the books were read well, they couldn’t duplicate the small thrill of having my father pause at a critical point in the story, like a magician holding off revealing what is in his hat, until I exhorted him to continue.
Despite his storytelling skill, my father didn’t read much beyond the sports page, books of silly quotes, and collections of columns by Dave Barry. He did like movies, however. So when, in mid-July, he called and suggested we see a movie, I should have said, “Great.” Instead, I said, “What, no golf?”
“I get the feeling you don’t like golf.”
If I admitted I didn’t like golf, I feared I would be invalidating all the times we’d played, and I was concerned he would withdraw from me even more. I said, “I do like it…sometimes.”
This was all the endorsement he needed. We arranged to play the following Friday. My father warned me that the weather might be scorching, but it was like an early autumn day, with temperatures in the 70s.
The knowledge that I’d passed on a chance to see a movie with my father—there was a film based on Tolstoy’s last novel currently playing as part of Ohio Eastern University’s Russian film series—made me feel masochistic. And I felt worse when, on the first tee, I sliced my ball into the opposite fairway, coming within a foot or two of hitting Father George, the ancient priest who had married my parents when both still considered themselves Catholics. “Tell him the Devil made you do it,” my father said as I walked with bowed head toward my ball.
I felt even worse when, on the third tee, Jack stepped from behind his hiding place and asked if he could join us. I was sure my father had let him know we would be playing today. I also suspected that he and my father had played on several occasions since August because they fell into an easy rapport, the kind of everyday conversation, full of gentle quips and genuine interest, that tended to elude me and my father, even at our most communicative.
After my father and Jack teed off, I stepped up to my ball, desperate to outdo them. They’d both hit impressive drives, 250 yards down the right side of the fairway. If I had given the situation any thought, I would have realized I had never hit a ball so far in my life, and any attempt to do so was certain to lead to disaster. I brought back my driver until the head dangled past my knees. After a brief pause—in which I should have had second thoughts—I swept the club around my body and smashed the head into the ball, which flew, waist-high in a perfect diagonal, smacked into an oak tree ten yards beyond the tee box, and rocketed straight back into my chest. I toppled over.
My father rushed over to me. Jack was more casual about it, but before long, he, too, stood over me, asking if I was all right, a faint grin on his face. The pain where the ball had struck me, to the right of my heart, was considerable, but it paled in comparison to the pain of my humiliation. Tears dribbled out of my eyes.
By the time I stood up, Jack had lost interest in me and was practicing his swing. My father, too, seemed eager to proceed, although he asked, “Do you need to put some ice on it?”
What I most wanted to do was fling my golf clubs into the woods and declare my golfing days over. “Yeah,” I told my father, “I think I’ll go find some ice in the clubhouse. I’ll catch up with you.”
Later, when my father and Jack made the turn, they found me in the clubhouse, reading a Steinbeck novel I’d discovered in the locker room. I told them I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, which could have described any day of my life, and encouraged them to finish their rounds without me. By the time they reached the eighteenth fairway, I’d taken my novel out to the veranda. I saw them hit their second shots. As they walked toward the green, where both of their balls had landed, I heard them talking, and although I couldn’t make out the words, I understood them to be part of a friendly ribbing. There was music in their voices, and contentment.
I could have found the scene disturbing, could have worried I was losing my father to my more talented and congenial rival. But I recognized that I had lost him long ago in a procession of dropped fly balls and tackles I’d avoided by running out of bounds (and, in one memorable instance, in the wrong direction) and in glory I’d never achieved because I was sitting at the end of the bench. Or perhaps it was I who had abandoned him by not toughening up and working to overcome my fear of fastballs and hard hits. I’d given up sports for books, whose authors had become like substitute parents to me, offering me insights about what was worth caring about and what might await me as I moved into adult life. If my father had brought Jack into our relationship, I had brought Tolstoy and Camus and James Baldwin. And although Jack might have hit 250-yard drives, Tolstoy and company were the real big hitters, their power extending beyond the body’s graces.
My revelation—my epiphany, as it were (although I would begin to read Joyce only the following year)—gave me such a feeling of lightheartedness that after my father and Jack putted out, I applauded as if I were an immense gallery. Jack looked up at me suspiciously, but my father smiled and waved his putter at me.
Over the next few years, I heard my father mention Jack on several occasions, and I began to think of him as a kind of stepbrother. (Although my father eventually married Sierra, they never had children.) I didn’t stop being jealous of Jack, and once I said something sarcastic when my father mentioned him, something like, “How the hell is old Jack the Ripper?” But I had my own life—before long, college; after this, graduate school; after this, a tenure-track position at Oberlin, a wife, a baby girl.
Two weeks before my father died of a heart attack, he came to the opening of a play I’d written. It was set in the Soviet Union in the year preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, its subject matter far removed from the concerns of small-town Ohio. His praise was hesitant, mostly, I suspected, because he was worried he might sound ignorant. His only criticism was of the way I’d portrayed the relationship between a boy and his father: Even fathers who had little in common with their sons, he seemed to say, can feel more than bewilderment and disappointment, although what left his mouth was fumbling and uncertain, the equivalent of my typical golf shot. I thanked him twice for coming.
Aside from money, he didn’t leave me much in his will—Sierra inherited the majority of what he’d owned. The most notable item he bequeathed me was his bag of golf clubs. If I had still been cynical—if I had still been a teenager—I might have read something mean in this gift, my father emphasizing my inadequacy as a golfer, as a son. But I figured he was making one last effort to reach me on his terms.
My father had told Sierra he wanted his ashes spread on a golf course. But even if his remains had been buried near his parents in a cemetery outside of Sherman, I thought his spirit might decide to reside at Wildwood. So the day after his funeral, I threw my father’s clubs in the trunk of my car and drove to the course, which I hadn’t stepped on since being struck in the chest by my errant tee-shot.
As usual, the course wasn’t crowded, and so I set off on my own. My father used to say that taking time off from golf was healthy because you could forget your bad habits. If anything, however, I was worse. By the time I stepped on the third tee, I was ready to quit. I hesitated, though, half-expecting Jack to step from behind the oak tree and ask to join me.
Minutes passed, and I began to wonder if Jack had ever existed. When I tried to picture him, I saw only a younger version of my father. Perhaps my father had conjured him in order to keep company with someone who understood and appreciated him, as I, had found myself in the company of characters from novels and plays. What we couldn’t get from each other, my father and I, we might have imagined for ourselves.
Or perhaps I had been the one to conjure Jack, someone to please my father and free me to be myself.
Before I retired from the course, I left my father’s clubs behind the oak tree and called Jack’s name, in my loudest voice, into the woods.