If I could offer one piece of advice, it would be this: when you drop out of community college, don’t go to work for a golf-course in the town you grew up in. Not even if you just got your girlfriend pregnant and now she’s talking about engagement rings, and just because you didn’t immediately put down last month’s Guns & Ammo she threatens to dig up the business card of a real estate agent named Steve who supposedly flirted with her back when she still worked at Hooters. Not even if you owe the bank almost seven thousand dollars and a born-again repo man is leaving messages on your answering machine that quote certain verses from books with names like Jeremiah and Ezekiel to make the point that this will be the week he finds the truck you park behind the screen at the abandoned drive-in. Not even if the kid from the local middle school who has been selling you his Adderall for over a year was dumb enough to bring his Gerber knife to school and got expelled and sent to live with an aunt in Fayetteville, and Trey with the creepy contacts who remind you of a Siberian Husky tries to talk to you every time you go up the Coffee Spot to get cigarettes, and it’s getting harder and harder to turn him down even if you have seen what happens to people who buy stuff from Trey. Trust me on this. Never work at a hometown golf-course. Because if you follow that path it will damn-near ruin everything.
To tell the God’s honest truth, I was never much for the college anyways. Except for Mr. Ford, my creative writing teacher, the professors always acted like they had someplace else to be. Not to mention the students were all the same idiots you went to high-school with except for a few years older and a few pounds fatter. College wasn’t like it was on the TV where skinny girls in yoga pants walk around smiling all day and at night people have parties with kegs and pizza and bands and stuff. It wasn’t like the stories that Brooks Pittman, who played beside me on the defensive line the year we finished third in the state, told when he came back from Clemson for Christmas break. It was basically just a bunch of losers still living with their parents who finally got sick of waiting tables at the four or five chain restaurants lined up out there on our one major highway. All but about two or three of them depressed the hell out of me, and whenever they met in the courtyard in between classes and bought chips and soda from the vending machines and sat around and talked about stuff that happened in high-school, I pretended to be talking to someone on my phone and snuck out to the parking lot to sit in my truck and listen to Travis Tritt’s It’s All About to Change, which is all I could listen to since it was stuck in the cassette player when I won the truck off my uncle with just a pair sevens during a family reunion poker tournament three years ago. There are a dozen or more tapes I would rather listen to but I got stuck with Tritt, who is only bad if you start thinking about all the other singers you could be listening to and, knowing where that kind of thinking takes you, I stopped it years ago.
So I would sit in my truck and listen to Tritt and wait until the clock on my dash read noon, which was when Mr. Ford’s class began. That week we were reading another story by Faulkner, which is all we had read since the semester began and which was starting to piss some people off seeing as how we had all paid $47 at the campus bookstore for an anthology of a hundred other writers. Ford loved this Faulkner guy though. On the first day of class he told us that Faulkner said all good stories were about people in conflict with themselves. I liked that. I had always thought something had to happen for a story to be good. All my favorite movies had action and it seemed to me that the people dying and the stuff exploding was what made them good. I asked Mr. Ford about this. He said he liked action too but there was a kind of action that took place inside a person. That was the kind of action Faulkner was talking about. At the time this made sense, but not really, so I just nodded my head and said I’d keep that in mind as I worked on my story.
My story was about a guy a lot like me who was trying to track a deer he shot before it got too dark to see. It was kind of a true story but I made some stuff up too, especially the parts about the gear, which in the story is much nicer and more expensive than the stuff I own. I wrote it so the guy brought his Pit-Bull along with him when he went hunting, which is exactly what I do with Judge-Not, my tan and white American Pit-Bull Terrier whose name was Dirk until he was about three weeks old. I changed it to Judge-Not on account of all the nasty looks and whispered comments we were getting from people every time I took him to a public park. I thought it was kind of clever, but it’s lost on most people.
Anyways, I had sunk into a nice little routine and was almost a quarter of the way through with my first semester of a two-year degree in Welding when Blake, this dumb hick I knew from the Roller Rink, approached me at the bar and asked me about college. I told him it was good and he asked me what I was doing for money. I told him about my part-time job working nights at the Amoco and he smiled all cocky and asked if I was ready to make some real money. Naturally I asked, “What do you mean real money?”
Blake had a sorry excuse for a mustache on his upper lip that made me angry when I looked at it and even angrier when he stroked it like it was something worth stroking. Come to think of it, pretty much everything about Blake pissed me off in one way or another: his stupid little haircut that was all close and faded like the black boys we used to play against in football, his stupid little tattoos that mixed stuff that doesn’t even go together like the Cross and the Confederate flag and some Chinese writing and a dragon breathing fire onto a moon, and his stupid little beady eyes and stupid little pointed nose and stupid little sunken jaw that all combined reminded me of a cartoon weasel.
“I mean more than the chump change you’re making cutting lawns in the suburbs with them wetbacks,” Blake said and looked over his shoulder as if he expected someone to be listening in to our conversation even though it was one in the afternoon on a Tuesday and we were the only two people at the bar. He was always doing stuff like that, stuff you suspected he saw in some movie and practiced in the mirror late at night when nobody else was around. I guess all of us do this to some extent. You just have to have some common sense about what you do and when you do it, and if there was one thing Blake did not have it was common sense.
“First of all,” I replied. “Get your facts straight. I don’t do landscaping anymore.”
I flagged down Jimmy and ordered another Miller Lite to give Blake a second to process this. He just kind of sat there though with his weasel eyes glued to the TV behind the bar like it didn’t faze him.
“And secondly,” I continued. “I’m not signing on for that pyramid shit you’ve been running. I know you got Austin Culpepper on that leash cause I swear every other time I see him he starts in talking about making eighty grand a year like I don’t notice his J.C. Penny dress shirt and fake-ass Costa Del Mars. Better run that game somewhere else, Blake.”
That got him laughing real hard and then he wiped the corner of his mouth with his thumb, another thing I bet he picked up from the TV since there was nothing there to wipe. Like I said, no common sense.
“VitaStrong is a multi-level marketing program. Hundred percent legit too. But that’s not what I had in mind.”
I did not have to ask what Blake had in mind. All I had to do was drink my beer and watch the TV, which is exactly what I would have done anyway if only to keep from looking at his stupid little jaw-line beard which I knew would only make me feel like breaking a bottle across his face. So I drank and he told me about his idea which would have been the dumbest thing I had ever heard if it wasn’t so damn smart.
Instead of just giving me the details, Blake took a pencil out of his pocket and asked me to look at it. I did and it looked like every other pencil I’ve ever seen except that it was red and white with the American Cancer Society logo painted right beneath the eraser. He asked me how much I thought the pencil cost. I said a dime. He said a nickel and then he told me that for the past three days he had been selling them for a dollar apiece at the Flea Market a couple counties over. Then his weasel eyes really started gleaming as he told me what he called “the genius” of his plan. The genius was that for five dollars a day his six year old niece and three of her friends would fan out across the Flea Market with handfuls of those cancer pencils, stopping people with their sad eyes and saying just like Blake taught them to, “Will you help kids with cancer?”
“Four hundred dollars,” he whispered.
“Not bad for three days work,” I said, wishing I could point out some hole in the plan that would wipe the smile off Blake’s face. But I couldn’t and Blake reached over and rubbed the spot in between my shoulder blades in a way that made me cringe and think for a moment that Blake might be queer.
“No,” he said. “I mean four hundred dollars per day.”
His hand was still between my shoulder-blades but I wasn’t thinking about that anymore. All I was thinking about was how I tried to multiply four hundred dollars a day by six days and lost track of how much it was. It was enough, to say the least.
“What do I do?” I said.
“There’s a blazer in my trunk with the American Cancer Society logo sewed on. You wear it and sit at the table while the girls do the leg work.”
“What if someone starts asking questions?”
“I’ll give you some brochures. Arrange them all professional and neat-like on the table and if anybody asks anything offer them a brochure and refer them to the website.”
If it was, my problems were solved. And it if it wasn’t, then what would I have lost by skipping a few classes and spending some time at the Flea Market? Only one of my three professors had an attendance policy anyway. So I agreed and Blake took me out to the parking lot and gave me the blazer, the brochures, and the pencils, and by noon the next day I was driving back from the Flea Market with four giggly little girls bouncing around in the back of my truck and three hundred and eighty seven dollars in my pocket. The next day I made three hundred and ninety-two dollars and Saturday of that week—the big day as far as Flea Markets go—I ran out of pencils before making four hundred and fifty four dollars. I even brought Judge-Not and let him run around in the field where all the food trucks were parked while I ate a funnel cake. I had to hand it to Blake, it was a nice arrangement.
The next week when the college called to let me know I was in danger of failing, I didn’t return the call. I did, however, mail Mr. Ford my story about the guy and the deer and the day getting dark. Most of the dialogue still sounded pretty stiff to me and it still didn’t have an ending but I felt like he would appreciate it anyways.
Angel never really questioned where the money was coming from. After that first night I told her I had run into Blake and I might pick up some work in between my classes, which, at the time, I thought was the truth. She was pretty busy herself working doubles at the urgent care center and taking care of her mama who had recently been diagnosed with cancer in a body part I had never even heard of and still cannot pronounce. She got a little hot once when she opened a piece of mail from the college saying I would not receive credit for the Welding classes, but she got over that in a couple of days and I never heard her complain about the Carhartt hoodies and Paula Dean bakeware I bought for her or the electric foot bath I sent her mother.
Of course not everything got perfect right away. That crazy Christian repo man was still leaving messages on my machine. This one week he quoted one from Galatians. I wrote it down before erasing the message because crazy as it sounds I almost felt like it was speaking to me. I don’t mean that like religious people mean it when they say that The Bible is speaking to them, though I think they’re entitled to feel that way and I don’t hold it against them like some do.
“Before I let you go I’d like to share a little something with you,” he said in a voice that by that time sounded familiar. “In Galatians chapter six verse seven, Paul says ‘Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. For whatever one sows, so one will reap.’ This is your word for the week, Boyd. You need to stop deceiving yourself and turn over that truck. If God moves in your life this week, you know where to reach me. Goodbye.”
When I say that it was speaking to me, I don’t mean regarding my truck. I loved that old Ford. The bank wasn’t getting that truck and that’s all there was to it. What I mean was that last part about the reaping and the sowing. That part got me thinking about what I was doing with Blake and if it could somehow come back on me. I’m not exactly sure what I was worried about, only that it wasn’t cops or angry customers or anything like that and it caused me to toss and turn for half a night before getting out of bed and praying like they taught us to in Sunday school. Right down there on that dirty carpet I asked God to forgive me and to protect me. After that I climbed back into bed and slept like a dead man.
Then a funny thing happened. The next morning I got up, picked up the girls, and went to work. I more or less forgot all about the prayer and kept selling those pencils everyday for about another week. I was still making almost four hundred bucks a day, still spending it as quick as I made it. Until one night Blake called me and said he ran out of pencils. Then while we were waiting for his connection to get us some new ones, his sister caught wind of the scheme and banned ol’ Uncle Blake from spending any more quality time with his niece. A couple weeks later Blake followed a girl he had met at an A.A. meeting down to Ft. Lauderdale and if he ever came back, I didn’t hear about it. I’m not an especially spiritual person but you have to admit if that was a coincidence then it was a crazy one alright. And if it wasn’t, well then I’m just glad I’m not mixed up with those pencils anymore.
That’s not all. It was just a few days later when Scotty, my Adderall connection, made good on a dare to bring his Gerber knife to school. Some kids hanging outside of the Bass Pro Shop told me that Scotty got caught when he was showing it off in the cafeteria and after getting expelled was pawned off on an aunt in Fayetteville. The headaches were hellish for a few days but eventually my head got as clear as it’s been in forever, and after a few days of Folgers and Mountain Dew it wasn’t so hard to ignore Trey when he’d approach me at The Coffee Spot. I felt like a million bucks to tell the truth. Again, coincidences.
After that I settled into a nice little routine where I didn’t do much of anything at all. There was still plenty of money and I wasn’t in any hurry to hit the job trail. Angel would go to work each morning and I would sleep in late, eat Chinese leftovers for breakfast, order movies off the television, and take things as they came. Of course after about two weeks of this Angel said I should pick up where I left off at the college. She was probably right about this since in the long view of things that Welding degree was going to be valuable. But at the time it just felt so damn depressing to think about going back to that place and not only having to see all the same losers carrying around all the same textbooks you know they’ll never read but having to know they are one semester closer to graduation while you’re back at square one. So I lied and told Angel I had missed the registration date for Spring classes but that I had submitted all my paperwork and I would be right as rain come Fall semester.
Of course all of that was before that Monday night when I was laid out on the couch watching WWE and, no exaggeration, at the exact moment that John Cena pinned Brock Lesnar, Angel burst out of the bathroom holding that stick and saying she thought she was pregnant.
“What do you mean you think?” I said.
“Look,” she said, thrusting the stick towards my face. “There’s two red lines. Two red lines means positive.”
“Shit,” I said, slapping her hand and sending the stick flying across the room. “Didn’t you piss on that thing?”
She was crying too hard to answer though so I picked up the stick, trying real hard not to think about where it had been. I held the stick up to the light and studied the two lines.
“They’re kind of more pink than red aren’t they?” I said, squinting.
“They’re red,” she said and wiped the tears out of her eyes so that she could properly glare at me.
“Okay, okay. So they’re red,” I said.
Then it was like someone hit a switch in her heart because she stopped crying and started dancing around. She must have said “Oh my gosh” at least a dozen times, never once taking her eyes off me.
“Boyd!” she screamed. “Boyd, we’re going to have a baby!”
And not knowing what else to do, I held her tight and answered her questions in a way I thought would make her happy but made me feel a little fake.
“Baby, can you believe this?” she said.
“I can’t believe it,” I said.
“You’re happy, right baby? Are you happy?” she said.
“I’m so happy,” I said.
“Should we call my mom?” she said.
“We should call your mom,” I said.
“I love you so much,” she said.
“I love you so much,” I said.
And so on and so forth until, sometime around midnight when Angel started talking about the future and I started calculating the odds that Blake would come back from Ft. Lauderdale, or that I could track down some of those pencils on my own, or that somewhere there was an express degree in Welding. My options seemed awfully limited.
Speaking of options, I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit that the other option occurred to me too. I only mention this because, looking back, I can tell you that I didn’t do it, didn’t even suggest it to Angel. Still, I would be a liar if I said that later that night when we were lying in the dark and Angel’s head was on my chest and she said, “Do you really want to do this?” that I didn’t think about bringing it up if only as an option. But I didn’t. I just kissed the spot above her cheek but beneath her eye and said, “Yes. Absolutely yes.”
The next day I called Angel’s brother, who works as a maintenance guy at a ritzy little golf course on the other side of town, and after I announced Angel’s pregnancy I asked for a job which I guess made it kind of hard to say anything but yes. By the following Wednesday I was a caddy and club-cleaner making minimum wage plus tips.
I had never worked at a golf course before. I remember sophomore year when Charlie “Shotgun” Nettles and I found a third-shift clerk at the BP who would sell us Icehouse without checking for ID and we used to sneak into local courses at night and drag Charlie’s father’s shrimping nets through the lakes until we had enough Titleists to pawn for beer money. But this was different because this was official.
I worked with a bunch of other guys in their early twenties and they were all just a bunch of good old boys and easy enough to shoot the shit with. The grounds manager was this old guy named Gary who could hit a ball longer and straighter than any pro I’d ever seen. He had one of those slightly feminine old Charleston accents that made even toilet humor seem kind of eloquent. When he wasn’t riding around in a cart or chatting up the golfers he just hung around the clubhouse chain-smoking American Spirits, only he never really seemed to smoke them so much as he just let them dangle out of the corner of his mouth while he told us stories even he didn’t believe. Plus the work was easy, the weather was nice, and I got two free rounds of golf each week.
I think it’s safe to say that if Angel’s brother had worked at a golf course a couple towns over everything would have turned out differently. Because if that was the case I would never have run into Billy Boyles.
I was changing the water on the first hole’s golf ball cleaner when I heard his laugh. Even though I had not seen him since high-school I knew it was Billy right away because he had one of those laughs that you don’t forget, especially not when you wrestled one weight class down from him and had to listen to it every time he pinned you in practice. And he pinned me a lot. Billy was a four time state champion at 145 pounds; I finished sixth in state my senior year after the defending state champion got disqualified by dropping me on my neck. Billy graduated top of our class and went to Duke on an academic scholarship; I almost didn’t get to walk due to a 69 in English that turned into a 70 only after my mom showed her ass in the principal’s office and threatened to contact a lawyer if her only son didn’t receive a diploma like everyone else. Billy was a class act and had known it since he could walk; I was white trash and had only just realized it in the past year or so. As far as I can tell, there is no reason for two people like us to ever cross paths after high-school. But since he was back from Duke for the weekend, we did, and before I could sneak off Billy let out that old familiar laugh and said, “Boyd Winston? How the hell are you, man?”
“Hey, Billy,” I said, pretending to be surprised as I shook his outstretched hand. “I’m doing okay. You?”
“Excellent,” he said and tightened his golf glove. “It’s been a while. What have you been up to?”
Of course I knew this question was coming before he even said it. It’s come a hundred or more times since graduation, only usually I’m buying milk at Wal-mart at two in the morning or I’m ordering food at an AppleBee’s, and in those places I can tell the person asking doesn’t have a much better answer than I do. With Billy it was different.
“School mostly,” I said and tried to change the subject by asking him what kind of driver he had.
“It’s the new Callaway,” he said. “Remind me where you’re going?”
“Tech, for now,” I said. “You still at Duke?”
“Yep,” he said. “Pre-med.”
“Nice,” I said.
“What about you?” he said and took his driver out of the bag. I recognized it from the pro shop. It was red and black and shiny and it cost more than I made in a week.
“Engineering,” I lied.
He was using the driver to stretch his arms out but stopped when I said this and raised his eyebrow.
“They have an Engineering department at Tech?” he said.
“Yep,” I said.
“Interesting,” he said. “What branch are you?”
“I’m sorry?” I said and pretended to be checking my phone for a text.
“What branch?” he said over his shoulder as he approached the tee box. “Civil? Electrical? Chemical? You remember Madison Young? She’s in the Engineering program at U.C. Berkeley.”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “We’re just kind of covering the basics right now.”
Billy had stuck a tee into the ground and placed a shiny new Titleist on top of it. He got into his stance and took a few practice swings.
“Well good luck with that,” he said and hit a two-hundred and seventy yard drive straight down the middle of the fairway.
“Nice shot,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said and slipped the driver back into his bag and hopped into his cart. “It was good seeing you, Boyd.”
“Good seeing you too, Billy,” I said and practically jogged back to the clubhouse.
I spent the next couple of hours helping Gary cut back some hanging branches on the thirteenth hole and intentionally took my time coming back so as to avoid another conversation with Billy. But when I got back to the clubhouse I noticed his bag in a stand with several others and, pretending to wipe a shutter, peaked inside and saw him yukking it up with a couple of grey-haired guys I heard were lawyers. They were all drinking beers with labels I didn’t recognize and Billy was waving his hands around telling a story. From the way those old guys were laughing it looked to be a funny one.
Technically my shift was over, though I usually hung around with some of the other caddies and hit some balls or had a few drinks. But seeing Billy had put me in a strange mood. I didn’t feel much like hanging around and since Angel was off tonight I decided to hurry home. But on the way to the parking lot I saw that damn driver poking up out of that damn bag and something about the way it looked stopped me dead in my tracks. I made sure that no one was around and then approached the bag. It was made of black leather and smelled like oil and had a dozen or more pockets which made me think there were things that the people like Billy carried that people like me didn’t even know existed. I wanted to know what goes in to all those pockets; I did. Anyways, before I knew what I was doing I was running my fingers along the shaft of the driver. It was cool to the touch and when I pinched it between my thumb and forefinger and lifted it out I could hardly believe how light it was. The driver’s head cover was matching black leather with the Duke Blue Devil smiling right above the monogrammed initials B.B.
Holding Billy’s driver I felt something I can’t completely describe. I guess I could call it anger, and that’s kind of close but that doesn’t actually capture the thing itself. The best I can do, and I know how weird this sounds, is to say that I felt kind of like the way a kid feels at the bottom of a dog-pile when that last kid jumps on top and you feel the air squeezed from your lungs and you swear you hear your bones cracking and you begin to see black spots and for a moment you actually believe you’re dying—well that was how I felt holding Billy’s driver. Different but somehow the same. And it wasn’t just Billy dog-piled on top of me. It was Blake and Angel and Trey and Tritt and Mr. Ford and even the damn Christian repo man, and they were all bearing down on me making it so I could hardly breathe, and before I knew it I was driving down the highway with Billy’s driver sitting shotgun.
Everything else happened quickly and without a lot of fuss. There was a security camera less than ten feet away from Billy’s bag. It captured everything. Two armed officers paid me a visit later that evening and based on the price of the driver and the head cover I was charged with petty larceny and sentenced to the standard sixty days. My one phone call was to Angel and she told me that she was taking Judge-Not and moving in with her mother.
I had been in jail for eleven days and still had not heard anything from Angel when I received a letter. I did not recognize the handwriting and assumed at first that Angel had told my mother and she had written me. But when I opened it I saw it was from Mr. Ford. He thanked me for mailing him my story and said he thoroughly enjoyed it. He included the copy I had sent him and he had written comments, mostly positive, all over it in red ink. And at the very bottom he said I was a natural story teller and it would be a shame if I didn’t finish the story. He said to re-write it and send it back to him, that he felt it stood a good chance in an upcoming contest. That was cool of him to say. Except for the touchy-feeling elementary school women who used to make bad boys like me their little projects, nobody had ever given me a compliment like that before. It meant even more coming from a guy like Mr. Ford who, as far as I can tell, isn’t the compliment-giving type.
So feeling that I owed it to Mr. Ford to make some kind of gesture, I stayed up and began to re-write my story using the red-ink comments. After about an hour I got bored and turned to a fresh page in my prison issue composition notebook. I felt like that story was about me without being about me at all. So I decided to write something else. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote until my head felt like an empty can with a piece of gravel rattling around inside it.
The next morning I took everything I had written and sent it out to Mr. Ford. The story I sent him was not the one about the guy and the deer and the day getting dark. The story I sent him was the one about Blake’s pencils and Angel’s pregnancy and Billy’s driver. About a week later Mr. Ford wrote back and said he believed I understood what Faulkner meant. I don’t know about that. Most of the things that Ford and Faulkner said went way over my head. I do know though that nobody is ruined by what’s outside of them. That’s just some bullshit we tell ourselves when we’re stuck and can’t catch a break. The truth—and I hope I still remember it by the time I get out—is our problems come from inside. It seems to me if a man realizes this and he happens to be strong enough to fight whatever it is inside of us that sends everything straight to hell, he could pretty much do anything. Realize this, I guess you can succeed pretty much anywhere. Even still, I’d steer clear of those hometown golf courses.