I have not posted anything in quite a while. I have been working 80-90 hours a week and have not had time. For anyone still reading this blog, or for anyone who has come across it by accident, I leave here deposited a story I recently wrote.
It is a story about golf, friendship, life and death, and redemption. I hope you enjoy it.
The Final Round
In the beginning there was golf, because in the end no human activity so encompasses the meaning of life; the victories and the defeats, the spectacle and the mundane, the celebration and the mourning. It is all there in the game of golf.
No other activity is so intoxicating and at the same time so infuriatingly sobering. No drug can get one as high as sinking a fifty foot putt, hitting a 250 yard drive that lands softly in the middle of the fairway, or lofting a chip shot from twenty yards off the green and the ball rolls to the hole and drops in the cup.
The spectacle of golf is not to be experienced in the final score, but in every shot which each serve as a self-contained drama strung all together to form a single unparalleled event. Never before and never again will there be a human experience that is so intrinsically good and evil; so unfair and at the same time so ultimately meritocratic.
There is nothing closer to heaven on earth than a seventy five degree day with clear blue skies, a slight breeze, and 18 lush fairways laid out before the golfer. Golf, as in life, is best when taken in the present. The last shot, good or bad, is gone. The next shot can only be played after the current one in your stance. So all we ever have is the shot before us right now. It is not then how one plays the round in total, but rather how one plays each shot individually that really matters.
During his trial for teaching the youth of his day to think outside the conventional box (at the end of which he was executed), Socrates stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. The vehicle employed by Raymond Taylor for such an examination was the game of golf.
For three friends named Raymond Taylor, Frank Godles, and John Lafferty golf was the golden thread that weaved together the disparate fabrics of their decade’s long friendship. From the early days of their youth, through the duration of their friendship on this earth, golf would be the one constant in the ever-changing landscape of life.
Getting a Tee time
A slight breeze sings a gentle song that can only be interpreted by the dancing leaves on their branches. As he looks longingly into the eternal blue sky he feels the warmth of the sun on his face, and it travels through his entire body like a glass of fine brandy. He thinks to himself, “This is what heaven must be like.”
“Hey Ray! Frank and I are already on the green, just waiting for you to chip on, your majesty.” John Lafferty’s terse request shocks Ray Taylor back to reality. Reality on this day, like so many others with his two best friends, is golf. And they are standing on the green, leaning against their putters and waiting for their rather pensive friend to chip onto the putting surface.
As Ray takes a practice swing next to his ball, Frank Godles chimes in with his rejoinder to John’s admonition of Ray, “He is probably day-dreaming about some hot chick.”
“No,” Ray shoots back as he takes a few more practice swings, “I was just thinking how ironic it is that you’re a lawyer and your name is God-Less,” emphasizing each syllable.
“It’s not God-less you boob,” Frank shoots back, defending the honor of his family name as well as his chosen profession, “it is God-ills, spelled G-O-D-L-E-S.” enunciating each letter like a drummer pounding out a slow and deliberate cadence.
“Yeah, whatever you say God-Less.” Ray responds in sarcastic resignation as his club head swoops down and strikes his ball, sending it lofting into the air. It lands on the green twenty feet from the hole, rolls up to the edge of the cup, and drops in.
Just as his ball hits the bottom of cup and makes that hollow thunk every golfer loves to hear, a brilliant white light pierces Ray Taylor’s eyes, forcing them shut. As Ray Taylor struggles to open his tightly squinted eyes, with tears rolling down his cheeks, he begins to see the outline of a woman by a window. Could she be the sadist who has so brutally and mercilessly brought his tortured soul back to the cold hard reality that has become his existence?
He slowly begins to flesh out the tableau of reality in his room. The sunlight streams through the spaces in her soft red hair, which she has pulled loosely to the back of her head and secured with a big tortoise-colored hair clip.
“God dammit Elizabeth! Much of my remaining days on this earth must be spent in bed; must I spend them blind as well?”
The Elizabeth to whom Ray Taylor directs his rather scolding words is Elizabeth Simpson, his hospice care provider. She is an Irish woman in her fifties whose family immigrated to the United States when she was a child in her single digits. Her father became deathly ill a few years after their arrival. Elizabeth’s mother was paralyzed by the enormity of it all, so the burden of caring for the dying man was placed on the shoulders of the young Simpson girl. It is probably why she chose the career she did; shepherding the dying to whatever comes next after this life. And it is what has led her to be in the bedroom of Ray Taylor, graciously accepting his good natured abuse.
As she turns and walks towards his bed Elizabeth answers her rather cranky patient in her soothing Irish brogue, “Now, now, Raymond, don’t you know that sunlight is a gift from God? It is His way of waking us up to one more day on this lovely earth.”
“A gift!” Ray answers incredulously as he motions with his hand to the tube in his arm through which he receives medication and nourishment, “I’m not so sure I wish to keep this gift. Besides,” he pontificates further, “I am not so sure I believe in God anymore.”
Elizabeth scolds him as she fluffs the pillows behind his head, “My granny use to say, ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, He talks to us in the mundane, and He screams at us in our pain;” then she quickly adds, “shame on you, God has been screaming and you still do not hear.”
Ray looks ruminatively at this woman who chooses to live her life in the constant shadow of death. “Well,” he says while motioning to the corner of the room where his dusty and be-cobwebbed set of Ping golf clubs has set for over a year, “I just wished I would have known that the last time I used those was going to be the last time I used them.”
His plucky healthcare worker sits on the edge of his bed and gently places her open hand on the side of his face, “Perceptions are not always reality.”
Before Ray can question her rather odd statement she is heading out of the room to answer the door. The doorbell has summoned her, and she is hoping it is the summons she has been expecting on this day when her charge has been more down than usual.
Ray is left alone to wonder if his well-meaning healthcare worker has gone crazy, or he has, or…he drifts off to sleep before he can finish his thought.
Stepping Up To the Tee Box
Elizabeth opens the door, “Well aren’t you two a sight for sore eyes?”
The sight for sore eyes to which she refers is in the form of Frank Godles and John Lafferty. Both of whom are standing at the door, John slightly behind and to the left of Frank. Both are festooned in golf attire, Frank is wearing a visor and John is wearing a straw hat.
“What’s shakin’ you sexy lass?” John blatantly flirts with Elizabeth.
She quickly quips back mockingly, “Why Dr. Lafferty, aren’t you the smooth operator? I believe I’m going to swoon.”
Frank interjects, paying no attention to the casual interplay between the woman and his friend, “How’s our boy today?”
Elizabeth answers, “He sure could use some friends; he is a little down.”
Frank quickly responds, “A little down? Considering he’s at the Grimm Reaper’s door waiting for an icy salutation, I’d say ‘a little down’ is pretty good.” Frank makes air quotes around “a little down” with his fingers.
Elizabeth moves to the side as she invites the duo into the entrance way. As they pass her she turns towards them and solicitously says, “Are you sure this is a good idea then?”
“It’s just golf Elizabeth. It isn’t lion hunting with a Bowie knife.” Frank responds, seeming surprised at the woman’s concern. “John and I are going to be with him every second.” Frank says reassuringly to the worried healthcare worker.
Elizabeth answers, being not the least bit placated by Frank’s attempt to mitigate the risk of taking a dying man golfing, “Oh yeah, what are you going to do if the good Lord decides to take him right there on the golf course, file a temporary restraining order against God Himself?”
“Let’s just say I hope the good Lord has a good attorney.” Frank says in a slightly arrogant tone.
“Freakin’ lawyers!” the phrase rolls easily off the tongue of John Lafferty. After almost forty years of friendship it has become a well-worn phrase, used as often as a carpenter uses his favorite hammer. He then continues, “Can we see the patient? Or are we going to stand here in the vestibule all day discussing the legal prowess of my good friend here against the Almighty?”
As the trio walks down the hall towards Ray’s bedroom they hear the familiar sound of his buzz-saw snoring. It is his trade mark amongst those unfortunate enough to be around him when he is asleep.
“Do you think we should disturb him?” Elizabeth asks.
“Are you serious? He was born disturbed.” Frank chortles.
As Frank crosses the threshold of Ray’s bedroom he cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “Four!” Elizabeth pushes pass him, gently brushing his hands away from his mouth in a scolding manner. She crosses the room to the bedside of her patient. Over these last many months she has grown very protective of him
Ray begins to awaken but is still a little foggy-headed as he looks in the direction of the door. He looks back at Elizabeth and scolds, “Dammit Elizabeth, how many times do I have to tell you to make sure the front door is closed? Look what kind of shit flies in when you don’t.”
John now walks well into the room, “Yeah, well why don’t you get off your lazy ass and close it yourself and leave this poor woman alone?” John sits on the edge of Ray’s bed and leans towards his dying friend, “How you feeling brother?”
“As fit as Nero’s fiddle the night Rome burned.” Ray answers jokingly.
“Is there anything we can get you?” Frank chimes in.
“A Godfather sub from DiBella’s.” Ray responds hungrily. “You know I think a good sandwich is the thing I’m going to miss the most besides golf when I…” Ray stops in mid-sentence without finishing.
Frank still standing beside his two friends says bluntly, “Well you ready to go?”
“Go where?” Ray inquires.
As John raises himself from his perch on the bed he responds, “We have a tee time in an hour.”
Ray looks disapprovingly at his two friends, “So that’s why you’re dressed in those clown suits. Did you stop here on your way just to rub it in? Well, have a great time and don’t worry about Elizabeth and me, we were planning on getting married and having a couple of kids.”
Frank smiles churlishly at John and turns to Elizabeth, “Can you have your betrothed here ready to go in fifteen minutes?”
Elizabeth is still looking quite concerned but answers, “It depends on whether or not he cooperates.” Elizabeth has already begun readying Ray by removing the intravenous tube from his arm, it having performed its function of providing Ray with his morning medication.
“What are you talking about?” Ray questions, still not quite understanding what his friends are suggesting.
“You are coming with us. Grab the kid’s clubs.” Frank commands as he turns to John.
Ray instantly brightens his demeanor as he practically jumps out of bed, almost before Elizabeth is finished removing the IV from his arm. “Well what took you guys so long? I’ll throw on some clothes, put on my golf shoes, splash some water on my face, and I’ll be ready to kick both your sorry asses all over the course.”
First Tee Jitters
Ray Taylor leans over the sink in his bathroom and douses his face with cold water. He reaches for the hand towel lovingly placed on the vanity top by Elizabeth just moments before. As he removes the towel from his face he is almost paralyzed by the reflection looking back at him in the mirror.
In what seems like overnight the firm skin on his face has become loose and saggy. His white teeth have darkened and rotted from the ravages of disease and the effects of medications taken to ease the suffering of that disease. And his once wavy, thick black hair has thinned and grayed. In essence he has aged thirty years in just little more than one.
Ray is not sure whose face this is staring back at him in the mirror, but it certainly could not be the same one he remembers from that morning just fifteen months ago as he prepared to meet with his friend and doctor, John Lafferty.
That morning he looked at a much healthier version of what he currently saw, and wondered then how it was even possible that a disease was growing inside him that might spell his demise. Ray felt and looked fine, except for a little discomfort and his recent quickness to fatigue; he had just chalked those inconveniences up to age. At the insistence of his doctor and golfing buddy Ray decided to have some tests completed, and today he would find out the results of those tests.
It would be an understatement to say Ray Taylor is more than a little nervous as he enters the medical building which houses Dr. Lafferty’s office. The good doctor has graciously agreed to meet Ray before any of his patients or staff has arrived.
Ray knocks sheepishly on the office door, almost as if he does not want it answered. He thinks to himself that as long as he stays on this side of the door he can avoid the potentially unpleasant news. He knocks harder when he realizes how silly he is being. One way or another he must know.
The office door opens slowly. What Ray does not know is that his friend was on the other side, hesitant to open the door for similar reasons. “Ray, come in and have a seat.” John says clinically.
But Ray knows instantly from the expression on his friend’s face that a medical consultation will be unnecessary. Almost forty years of friendship has taught him how to read his friend’s expressions.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Ray spews out as he walks into the room. Without giving his friend a chance to answer he continues, “Look, let’s cut the preliminary niceties of bedside manner and get to the point. How long do I have?”
Dr. Lafferty, seeing the desperate desire in his friend’s request to know his fate, knows better than to try to placate him as he would with other patients in a similar situation, “Twelve to eighteen months, give or take a month or two.”
Ray falls into a chair by the desk as if he suddenly had no legs. He fidgets with a big golden putter and ball attached to a wooden base that the good doctor had won for accumulating the least number of putts in a round at a golf outing a few years ago. Thirty two if Ray remembers correctly. A quick glance at the plaque on the trophy confirms he is right. Yep, it was thirty two.
He thinks how odd it is that most people blink their eyes and a month or two goes by without notice. They scurry about doing all the banal things that humans do to distract themselves from the inescapable fact that someday they will leave this earth. They work, they play, they argue and love, and they raise their children.
All the while the great equalizer; death, waits for them just outside their last couple months of life. The human called Raymond Taylor has just this instant become keenly aware of death now waiting for him in the fringe created by the “month or two” defined by his doctor and good friend.
“Well, seeing as this is not an estimate of whether I am 160 as opposed to 170 yards from the green,” Ray says somberly and continues, “I hope you won’t be insulted if I ask for a second opinion.”
His lifelong friend looks at him with the best medical expression he can muster under the circumstance and answers, “Certainly not. You’re also a dick.”
Ray looks at his friend who knew just what to say in this, the worst moment of his life, and holding back tears, he laughs to keep from crying.
John Lafferty quickly says, “Hey, tell you what. How about I cancel my patients for today, we get that bum Godles to clear his calendar, and we all play a round of golf, smoke cigars, and get loaded?”
Ray points towards the door and says, “Let’s make it happen.”
Bang! Bang! Bang! Ray Taylor is shocked back to the present by a series of knocks on his bathroom door. “Hey, what are you doing in there, playing with yourself? Come on we have a tee time.” he recognizes Frank’s sarcastic voice.
“Coming, for Christ sake,” Ray responds jokingly, “can’t a guy rub one out in peace?”
Ray flings open the door and throws his arms around Frank’s neck, “Come here big boy, you want to help me?”
Frank recoils, “Back off pervert!”
Frank and Ray walk out the front door and into the driveway where John is waiting by Frank’s SUV with his arms crossed, “Come on. Come on. The clubs are loaded and we’re ready to go.”
Frank and John help their ailing friend into the backseat of the vehicle. Ray hears the door chime ringing. He wonders how many more times he will hear a car door chime. Ray has been thinking much about such things in recent months: Will this be the last bird I hear sing, the last thunderstorm I will see, the last orange juice I will taste, the last time I will feel the warmth of another person’s skin on mine, or the last time I will smell the aroma of someone burning wood in their fireplace.
Ray has surmised that part of dying is recognizing that the most important blessings are the most mundane, even if it is a blinding blast of sunlight delivered by a well-meaning health care worker.
Frank and John slide into the front seat and turn their heads to look at their friend in the back seat. “Did you bring them?” John asks slyly of the driver.
Pointing to the center console Frank answers, “If you mean the Monties, they’re in there.” Monties is the trio’s slang for Monticristo cigars, which has become a staple of their golf outings.
John opens the console and pulls out one of the Monticristos. Handing it to Ray in the back seat he clinically says, “Now as your doctor I cannot recommend the imbibing of such a thing.”
“But how about as my friend?” Quizzes Ray.
A smile crosses the doctor’s face, “As your friend I say ‘Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.’”
Ray slowly moves his nose over the entire length of the cigar like a wine coinsure sniffing a fine glass of wine. “There’s nothing better than a round of golf with friends.” Ray says as he looks pensively out the window.
The vehicle begins to move and John turns back around towards Ray and says, “I feel the same way buddy.”
“I was talking about the cigars.” Ray quips sarcastically.
“You’re such a dick.” John says turning back towards the front.
Frank’s SUV pulls onto the main road and the three friends are off for what is sure to be their last golf outing together in this world.
Addressing the Ball
Elizabeth Simpson fully flings open the curtains in Ray Taylor’s room. She cranks open the window and stands for a moment, letting the warm breeze stroke her face like a gentle lover. She posits to herself that it’s a good time with Ray out of the house to wash his bedding and straighten his room.
As she stands for a moment before commencing her work Elizabeth thinks about the relationship she has developed with her patient over these many months. Ray’s earlier allusion to a marriage was more on the mark than it was off. She knows all too well that the relationship between a hospice healthcare worker and her patient can in some ways be compared to a marriage of sorts. There is love and irritation, joy and sadness, laughter and tears, and conversation and silence.
Elizabeth has shared hundreds of hours of conversation with her patient, and probably many more in silence. She has listened to music at his bedside, Blues mostly. Ray says one doesn’t necessarily listen to the Blues, but rather one feels the Blues. It is the most naked form of music; the heart, soul, and entirety of the singer’s being is exposed through the music.
Elizabeth once remembers Ray saying if there was such a thing as reincarnation he would like to come back as a blues singer. He said he would still have pain in his life, but at least his pain would provide people entertainment and joy. Ray Taylor was a vessel of dichotomies like that; joy from pain, courage from fear, and disliking change yet living a life drenched in constant change.
She also remembers the many times he sent her out of his room, and closing the door behind her she would hear him quietly whimper in pain. She valued his dignity as a man over her desire to comfort someone in pain. She knew it would be more painful for him emotionally to have her see him tear up in pain than the pain itself. So she would resist the temptation to open the door, and would suffer a different kind of pain on her side of that barrier.
Frank’s SUV containing the three participants in the forthcoming round of golf pulls up to Eagle’s Knob golf club. The course was designed and built by Chester L. Eagle. He invented a special heat-resistant knob used in manufacturing. He made millions off of his invention and, being an avid golfer, decided to use his new found wealth to build a golf course.
The entrance to the course leaves little doubt about the origins of its name. A thirty foot sculpture of the course owner’s invention greets everyone arriving at Eagle’s Knob. Over the years it has become quite the local landmark. Additionally, all of Chester L.’s employees are required to wear special hats shaped like the knob, and the bar stools in the club house are shaped that way as well.
It is local folklore that one of the holes at Eagle’s Knob was even designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus. Over the years there has been much speculation about which hole it might be. There have been more than a few heated debates on the subject, and on one occasion, a lively debate came to fist-a-cuffs between two golfers with differing opinions on the matter. The altercation ended when one of the golfers bent the shaft of his five-wood by hitting the other golfer over the head with it. Both golfers were expelled from the course and asked never to return. Eagle’s Knob could not stand for such brutish behavior.
Reportedly, Chester L. was seen smiling throughout the altercation, having been quite pleased that the tale could inspire such pugilistic debate. He surmised that keeping the myth alive could only be good for business. Anyway, no one really knew for sure if the myth was true, but adding fuel to the fire was the fact that just a couple years ago the Golden Bear himself was seen playing a round at Eagle’s Knob.
Ray Taylor sits on the passenger side of one of two golf carts the trio has secured for their round at Eagle’s Knob golf club. He methodically fingers a golf glove his friend John Lafferty took from his bag and tossed to Ray just a moment before. John is now securing their golf bags to the rear of the carts while Frank Godles is in the club house paying for their rounds. Ray listens to the club heads banging together as he feels the material of the glove between his fingers. It was soft and rubbery, similar in nature to the material of a shammy one would use to dry a car after washing it.
It is hard to believe, Ray thought, that it was nearly forty years ago that he was a shy 15 year old boy sitting on a hard wooden bench in the caddy shack of a local country club. A lanky blonde boy approaches, “It’s the hardest part of the job.”
“What is?” Ray sheepishly questions.
“The waiting to be assigned to a golfer.” the blonde boy reaches out his hand, “I’m Frank Godles. Is this your first season?”
Ray, reaching out his hand, “Yeah, I thought it would be a good way to make a few bucks. I’m sure it’s got to be better than slinging fast food to the masses.”
The two shake hands as Frank sits down on the bench next to his new friend. It isn’t long before they are called to go out. As they grab the bags of their newly assigned golfers and walk to the first tee they see another boy with his back to them.
The other boy turns as he hears them approach and greets them, “Hey, I’m John Lafferty.” he says as he holds out his hand.
The three shake hands, each acquainting themselves with the others.
“It’s a beautiful day for golf.” John exclaims optimistically.
“Yeah, if you’re playing.” Frank responds sarcastically.
“I heard they let the caddies play on Mondays. Do you both play?” Ray says hopefully.
“Yes.” Both Frank and John respond simultaneously.
“Then it’s a date?” Ray questions his new friends. Again a simultaneous response is rendered by the other two boys.
The following Monday the three new friends play the first of what is to be hundreds of rounds of golf together. Through births, deaths, marriages, divorces, job gains, job losses, and everything in between the three will have one constant; golf. It is the one unchangeable commodity in their lives. The physics of the game never change, unlike life itself.
As he sits in the golf cart with the glove still in his hand Ray Taylor thinks how odd it is that golf brought the three of them together almost forty years ago, and now they are readying themselves for their final round as a threesome.
Ray raises his gaze from the glove in his hand to see Frank exiting the clubhouse and walking toward the two carts onto which John has been loading their clubs, “So I am the odd man out? Riding alone again?” Frank kiddingly complains.
“I wouldn’t want to get sued for bad driving.” John returns Frank’s complaint.
“How about you Ray, you ready to play some golf?” Frank says as he now approaches the cart in which Ray Taylor sits.
“Let’s make it happen.” Ray says as he forces his left hand into the glove he has been fondling.
“First things first.” John admonishes his friends as he clips the ends off three Monties and hands one to each of them. Then he torches Ray’s cigar with his wind resistant lighter. He does likewise to Frank’s, and then his own. The three friends sit for a moment, enjoying the cool robust smoke of the Monties and the quiet of each other’s company.
The two carts containing the three friends roll up to the first tee and come to a stop. John and Frank bound from their carts like school boys on a lark. Raymond hobbles off his perch slowly.
“You take honors Ray.” John offers his ailing friend.
“Sure. Neither of you want to be the victim of first tee jitters.” Ray suggests. He takes a puff of his cigar and walks to the tee box with his driver.
Frank places a tee in the ground and sets Ray’s ball on top of it. “Now see if you can put one in the fairway. Nice and easy now Ray.”
Ray looks at his ball and then he looks up to see Ray Sr. taking three steps back. A twelve year old Raymond Taylor stands nervously over his ball; his young hands gripping the club with sweaty palms. He tries to remember the instructions Ray Sr. has just given him. Now it is time for Raymond to put into practice the lessons of his father.
He draws back on the club; Keep your head down, keep your back straight, keep your knees bent, move your hips, turn your body, break your wrists on your back swing, shift your weight to your front foot on your follow through, and keep your eye on the ball.
The instructions play over and over in his 12 year old head, increasing in their speed until they sound like an annoying mosquito. The instructions, which projected a great amount of lucidity when his father outlined them, now become a jumbled mess in young Raymond’s head.
Raymond hacks at the ball, forgetting all of his father’s advice. A chunk of turf the size of a tea-cup saucer lunges ten feet in front of him, but the ball remains steadfast.
“Christ Almighty,” his father scolds, “you’re not clubbing baby seals, you’re trying to loft the ball into the air.” he continues, but in a much more dulcet tone, “Just guide the club head to the ball and watch as it makes solid contact. Let the club do the work. Nice easy swing, now try again.”
Raymond swings the club as evenly as he can and keeps his eyes on the ball until the club makes contact. The ball arches into the air and lands in front of Raymond and his father about fifty yards away.
“Nice shot Ray!” It is the first time his father has ever called him Ray instead of Raymond.
Ray feels a rush of blood throughout his body as he answers his father, “Nothing to it.”
“Don’t get cocky.” admonishes Ray Sr.
Ray would never know his father as well as he did on the golf course. It was one of the few times he could remember his father showing approval for anything he did. On the course Ray felt he really understood and knew the man called Ray Taylor Sr. Unfortunately that understanding never extended outside the context of golf, except in the last 18 months of his father’s life as he suffered with dementia in that nursing home.
During his frequent visits Ray saw a different man than the one he grew up knowing. Nursing home dad was an open and gentle man, a kinder and wiser man. The kind of father Ray always wanted growing up. During those visits he drew insight into his father.
One visit in particular Ray Sr. thought Ray Jr. was actually his brother who had already been deceased at the time for several years. Ray Sr. opines to his dead brother in the form of his son, “Did dad tell you what those bastards did to his store today?”
Ray Jr., pretending to be his uncle, answers curiously, “No I hadn’t heard. What did they do?”
Ray Sr.’s father was a butcher and had a small shop; he was also of German ancestory. Ray Sr. was just a boy of 9 years old when World War II had started. He spent his most formative years growing up in the shadow of being German during a period his own country was at war with Germany.
“Well they painted ‘Go home Nazi’ and ‘Die Krout scum’ on the front of his store.” Ray Sr. answers as if the pain is hours old and still raw.
Ray Jr., not ever hearing this piece of family history before, is shocked into silence. He finally regains himself and softly says, “Dad that was some seventy years ago, and Uncle Ed has been dead for nearly two years. I’m your son, Ray Jr.”
Ray Sr. just looks at his son with a perplexed look on his face as if he is trying to decipher a complicated algorithm, then asks, “How’s your kitties? What are their names?”
Ray answers as he has done a hundred times before, “Scooby-Do and Bam-Bam.” Ray Sr. laughs as he does every time he hears the names. At least, Ray Jr. thought, he could offer this little bit of joy to his ailing father in his final days.
Ray Jr. was given an insight into his father that he may never have gotten had it not been for those sometimes painful visits in the nursing home. Not that he was happy his father had spent the last months of his life in a nursing home. Something he had said many times he wanted to avoid at all costs, even telling Ray to shoot him in the head first. Ray Sr. always said he wanted to die on the golf course. “Now that,” he would gleefully state, “would be the way to go.”
Ray was suddenly struck by his experience with Ray Sr. in the nursing home and the connection he now drew between it and what Elizabeth had said about God screaming to us in our pain. Maybe God gave Ray the gift of the father he always wanted in the waning and painful months of Ray Sr.’s life.
Ray swings and strikes his ball. It sails through the air and lands in the middle of the fairway about 220 yards from the tee. And so starts his final round of golf with his two best friends.
Ray Taylor’s drive on the second hole hooks terribly left and rolls into the rough where there are scrubby little bushes and small evergreen trees.
“You takin’ a mulligan Ray?” Franks offers sympathetically. A mulligan is a do-over of a really bad shot. The trio usually allotted each player one mulligan per nine holes.
As he walks to the cart using his upside down driver as a cane with which to steady himself Ray rejects the offer, “No, I think I’ve already had my share of mulligans.”
A confused John questions his friend, “But you haven’t taken one yet, it’s only the second hole.”
“Haven’t I?” Ray sighs as he finally makes it to the cart and slumps into the seat. He grabs for his cigar and places it gingerly between his lips. He takes in the smoke and releases it. The expelled smoke encircles his head, forming a cloud. Yeah, he has had more than a few mulligans in his life; from his varied careers to his relationship with his daughter.
A teenage Brittany’s young life was spiraling out of control; it was the reason her mother had sent her to live with her father. It did not take too many months for an altercation to ensue in which Ray behaved brutishly toward his young, confused daughter.
It must have been overwhelmingly horrifying and frightening for this young girl to have her father, whom she trusted and loved, sitting on top her flailing his hand in anger. It was Frank that came to collect Ray from the police station that night after Brittany had filed domestic violence charges against him; a charge Ray knew was warranted even though he tried to excuse his behavior to family and friends.
Frank just looked at his friend trying to exculpate himself from blame and directly and succinctly said, “It doesn’t matter what she said nor did, you can’t hit her.” Frank always had a way of seeing through the crap and cutting to the core of an issue. It is probably what made him such a great lawyer. Sometimes in their friendship Frank was more the father figure that Ray had sorely lacked in his childhood, than he was a friend.
The event had haunted Ray throughout the rest of his life. He had had a teacher in high school who once warned against making choices in life that would lead to such regret. He said everyone had regrets in life, but that one should make choices that limited regrets to things like, “I should have had the fish instead of the veal,” or “I should have bought the black shoes instead of the brown ones,” or “I should not have invested in that penny stock.”
One should avoid making choices which led to regrets like, “I should not have driven drunk and killed that guy,” or “I should not have physically attacked my child.” Ray Taylor had many regrets in life, striking his daughter in anger stood alone in his annals of regret.
In the still lonesomeness of solitude Ray has wrestled with his regret and has shed more than a few tears over his sin against his daughter. Because it was wrong, but also because of the guilt he has had that his actions may have led to what transpired next in his daughter’s young life. At the very least his actions did nothing to derail the coming train wreck in Brittany’s life.
The wrong boy who was also out of control, an addiction to heroin, a felony committed to satisfy that addiction and poof! The little girl playing with Barbie dolls on her grandma’s living room floor was suddenly being led into a court room in hand cuffs. One of the last places on earth a parent wants to see their child other than in a casket is in a courtroom as a defendant in a criminal case, and worse yet being one thousand percent guilty.
Ray is astonished as arguably the strictest judge in the county sentences Brittany to probation, rehab, and a series of AA meetings. It is strange to say, but Ray feels as he too is being given probation, a chance to atone for his sins.
Ray Taylor sits in a small room that contains folding chairs arranged in a circle and upon which have seated family members of the addicts in rehab. Every Saturday morning they gather to discuss the difficulties of living with an addict in the family. Then the family members join their addicts to have a general meeting, after which they can spend a couple of hours visiting.
Ray was never quite sure who needed rehab more, his heroin-addicted daughter, or himself. Golf was not the only thing bequeathed to Ray by his father. In many ways Ray was to his daughter an amalgamation of all the traits which he longed to edit from his own father’s character growing up.
After rehab Ray took Brittany in, the two of them living in Ray’s one bedroom apartment. But it was a chance, Ray thought, in some small way to atone for the sins of his past. His own personal Yom Kippur, sort of speak.
The relationship grew, and though Ray had not seen his daughter as much during the ensuing years as he would have liked, there was definitely a special bond that could not be broken. It was like the bond developed between survivors of a plane crash or some other such disaster. In a way Brittany and Ray had survived their own kind of crash.
Ray grabs his utility wedge as he walks from the cart to his ball lying beside a scrubby little bush with a small evergreen four feet directly behind it. It would be a tricky shot indeed. He stands in the only position he can to have any kind of swing at his ball; with the scrubby little bush between himself and his ball. He draws the club back a quarter of the way so as to not entangle it in the evergreen branches and accelerates the club head towards the ball. It makes contact and propels into the air and lands close to the middle of the fairway about sixty yards away.
“Great out Ray!” John and Frank say in unison as if they are Simon and Garfunkel.
“It’ll play.” Ray says with relief in his voice. He hobbles back to the cart and once again sticks his cigar between his lips and takes a long drag. The exhaled smoke drifts away from Ray, riding the crest of a breeze.
Ray thinks of all the times in his life when he has put himself in difficult situations as he had done with his previous drive. He also recounts to himself how, just like with the shot he had just executed, a certain element of luck or good fortune had extricated him from those tough spots. Elizabeth would most likely say he was blessed, and Ray would not raise his voice in opposition to her spiritual characterization of the fortuitous outcomes to his bad choices.
The Par Three
John Lafferty glances sideways at his patient, friend, and golf companion sitting next to him in the golf cart as he drives it to the next tee. As a doctor familiar with the advanced stage of Ray’s condition, he knows how much pain his friend must be in at the present. Yet riding over the rolling and bumpy fairways and roughs of Eagle’s Knob in a golf cart with a cigar dangling from his mouth, Ray Taylor appears to be just a random golfer on any given day.
Dr. Lafferty would not dare ask his friend how he is feeling; it is a struggle in which the man of friendship must prevail over the man of medicine. Besides, Ray is golfing with his best friends on a beautiful day and partaking in a fine cigar. What more could any man want in the waning days of his life? Hell, what more could a man want on any day of his life?
It is a bittersweet pill for the doctor to swallow; knowing that this will be the final round of golf for the three friends, and knowing that in a real sense Ray is enjoying it more than any round of his life precisely because it is his final round.
Frank Godles motors his golf cart ahead of his two friends, almost running them off the cart path and giggling as he passes. He waits until the last possible moment before running into the next tee and slams on the brakes while turning the wheel, skidding sideways like a 1970s TV detective.
He is standing on the tee with a seven-iron in his hand when his two tardy friends roll slowly up to the number three tee at Eagle’s Knob. The hole is a surprisingly tough par-three that is only 165 yards long. The green stands like Iwo Jima. And if the water completely surrounding the green was not intimidating enough, festooning both sides of the fairway leading to the water is a series of deep bunkers; sand traps.
Frank addresses his ball and swings, his two golfing companions hardly having removed their clubs from their bags. His ball flies through the air in line with the flag stick on the right side of the green. It lands on the green then rolls into water (the greens at Eagle’s Knob are infamously fast).
“That’s what you get for going out of turn, Ray had honors from the last hole.” John scolds his friend. Honors is the term used to describe the tradition of the golfer having the best score on the previous hole shooting first on the next hole.
Frank slowly turns to his friend and reveals an extended middle finger.
“Nice summation counselor.” Ray says as he walks to the tee with his club and ball. As he passes Frank he throws one arm around his friend and brightly says, “You gotta love being out here! A bad day on the golf course still beats the best day at work.”
“If you two are finished with your love-fest can we play some golf?” John says sounding humorously annoyed.
Ray stands over his ball, turns his head and looks down the sadistic fairway to the green. He turns his head again and looks at his ball. He repeats this process several times as if he cannot believe what kind of sadist would design such a golf hole. Maybe Jack Nicklaus he thinks.
He takes a few practice swings with his nine-iron. Unlike his impetuous friend Ray decides to play it safe and lay up in front of the water around the green. If he can play his nine-iron 125-130 yards out, and in the fairway, then he can possibly chip onto the green and one putt for a par. He may be able to control the roll of his ball on the green better by chipping it on rather than driving it on as Frank had done.
Ray pauses on the thought of playing it safe. It is illustrative of the dichotomy that has been his life; playing it safe on the golf course where it does not matter, but taking too many chances in real life. No one could accuse Ray Taylor of timidity leading him to playing it safe to his own detriment. Ray had just the opposite problem.
He was nineteen years old when it all could have ended. A couple of Ray’s friends at the time lived in a fourth floor apartment with a balcony that was accessible through a sliding glass door. The apartment was a frequent hangout for Ray and his friends, party central was what they affectionately called it.
One night, as they drank heavily and inhaled from a bong even more heavily, Ray got it in his head that he was going to reenact a story of which he had recently been made aware. The daring tale recounted how Jim Morrison once walked the rail of a balcony after he had been drinking heavily one night.
Much to the protestations of his friends Ray slides open the glass door. Before his friends have a chance to react he is up on the rail. It is quite the scene; his friends pleading with Ray to come down off the balcony rail while Ray is telling them to F-off.
He walks gingerly across the front of the rail like a high wire performer in a circus. He gets to the corner of one side and falls to the inside of the balcony, landing with a thud and drunken laughter. It was just as likely that he could have fallen the other way to the pavement below.
“You’re one crazy son of a bitch.” a young John Lafferty scolds him.
“Who, me? I was just looking for the bathroom. You mean it’s not over there?” Ray points to the balcony from which he has just fallen.
Ray plops down on the sofa while John remains standing. Ray leans forward as he takes a long hit off the bong, holds in the smoke for what seems like an eternity, and then releases it into the air in the direction of his friend. He begins to speak before all the smoke is gone from his lungs and it slowly leaks out of his mouth as he talks, “Can I ask you something,” and without stopping for approval from his friend he continues, “you’re going to be a doctor, right?”
The future Dr. Lafferty nods in the affirmative.
Ray continues, “How can you, or anyone for that matter, commit the ungodly number of years it takes to achieve that goal?”
John Lafferty answers promptly as if his answer has been waiting for years like a lovelorn girl waiting to be asked for her hand in holy matrimony, “My father once told me commitment is the thread that binds together the fabric of our lives. Without commitment there is nothingness which in itself is borne of commitment; instead of committing to something the individual commits to nothing.”
The future doctor swigs his beer and continues, “Commitment is the rudder that keeps the boat on course. Commitment is the needle on the compass that guides the weary traveler to the safety and warmth of home. Commitment wakes you in the morning and propels you to work; it soothes you at night and gently rocks you to sleep. Commitment rarely leads to constant happiness, but it does create the space for happiness by insuring a satisfied mind and a contented heart.”
Ray looks wearily at his friend and responds, “That’s a lot of words.” And then he nods into unconsciousness.
John Lafferty smiles at his friend who is passed out as a result of being stoned and inebriated. He realizes that Ray does not yet have the ability to fully comprehend the wisdom imparted by the senior Mr. Lafferty to his young son.
It is not a knock on Ray, he just seems unable to focus and commit to one thing. John ponders his passed out friend and wonders if it is environmental or if some people like Ray are just born sans the commitment gene. Or maybe he, John, is just being overly analytical, and his friend will one day grow out of his aversion to commitment. He walks to the kitchen to get another beer, still thinking about his father’s commitment advice and how he might aid his comatose friend in one day understanding it.
Throughout his entire life it seemed Ray was walking that rail, somehow managing to fall to the less severe consequences of his reckless behavior. If there was a God, Ray pontificates, he sure has a full time job looking after him.
Ray swings at his ball and it sails into the air and lands left of the center of the fairway approximately 130 yards from the tee box. He has achieved the first phase of his strategy.
John Lafferty, seeing how well the tactic worked for Ray, follows suit. His ball flies too far left and lands in one of the many bunkers lining the fairway.
“Looks like you have the best chance for par Ray.” comments Frank jealously.
“I’m not on the green yet, and there is still that moat around it that’s looming large.” Ray responds cautiously.
The trio exits the green with Ray having gotten his par and Frank securing a bogie after the penalty stroke for hitting his ball in the water. The good doctor fairs much worse, having plopped his sand shot into the water and then three putting the green for a score of seven. Ray is happy with his par on arguably the toughest par-three the friends play on any course.
Ray sits in the cart before proceeding to the next hole. He takes a drag of his cigar and lets the smoke meander from his mouth like a gentle mist rising from a swamp. He wonders in what direction his life may have ultimately traveled had he made choices as he has just made on the par-three. He is still lost in thought as his friend John Lafferty guides their golf cart towards the next hole.
The Lost Ball
As the golfing triumvirate pulls up to the fourth tee Ray lets out a groan.
“You okay?” John asks as he turns to his friend.
“I hate this hole.” Ray answers with dread in his voice.
This hole is a 510 yard par-five with two severe dog legs. The fairway is shaped like a sideways Z, with each leg measuring 170 yards. What make the hole even more diabolical are the dense woods that line the fairway on both sides. Many golfers will try to aim their drive over the trees on the right side, in an attempt to short cut the first leg of the hole and land their ball in the fairway somewhere on the second leg.
Ray Taylor employs this strategy, but his drive is not quite far enough and the three men hear his ball hit a series of trees. His ball hitting the trees makes a woody sound analogous to a slugger hitting a home run.
Frank walks up to the tee and as he passes his friend he states the obvious, “You’re in jail over there.”
Ray passes his friend in silence and ponders his predicament.
A thirty nine year old Ray Taylor sits in a conference room at a long mahogany table waiting for his manager to arrive. Ray has been working as a computer programmer for the last decade since graduating from trade school. His manager has requested a meeting with Ray to discuss “a matter of great import.” There are no pleasantries exchanged between the two men. The meeting is brief.
“Ray your work has suffered greatly in recent months, and your attitude is not consistent with the culture of this company.”
Before letting his boss continue Ray interrupts, “Are you firing me?”
“I have to let you go, the higher ups are at the end of their rope and I cannot cover for you anymore.” His boss continues as he mindlessly shuffles the papers in front of him, “Look Ray, you’re a nice guy with many positive qualities. I really hope you can come out of whatever fog you’re in before it destroys your life.”
Ray, jumping to his feet spews his anger and frustration, “I’m going to get you for this you prick. You don’t give a shit about me, you’re just trying to placate me in hopes I won’t kick your sorry ass all over this room.”
The years of sitting in that windowless office and crunching computer code for twelve hours a day had led to excessive drinking and drug abuse by Ray. He was living in conflict with the better angels of his nature, although he would not realize this until years later. He would first have to spend years lost in the trees.
The trees of Ray Taylor’s life would mean nearly four years of drifting from one menial job to the next. Pizza delivery, gas station clerk, drywall laborer, and a plethora of other such jobs would sustain him.
It seemed to be Ray’s avocation to always settle for less, to just sustain life instead of truly enhance it. He never thought he deserved anything more, and so he never got anything more. Many people are afraid of failure, Ray Taylor was afraid of success. Failure always seemed to be a comfort, like a well-worn pair of pajamas. So whenever he got close to success, like with his computer career, Ray would somehow manage to sabotage himself.
Ray Taylor would eventually find his way out of the trees in his life, if not always on the golf course. One thing remained steadfast; he was blessed with friends that stood by his side as he searched. Throughout his time in the trees John Lafferty and Frank Godles had stood by their friend, many times covering his rounds of golf when he was too broke to afford them himself. They seemed to have an innate instinct for knowing when to stand back, but yet still be close enough to offer support.
Ray found his way out of the trees after losing his computer job, landing a maintenance job at the local high school which he would hold until he was too ill to continue. He enjoyed the work, and surprisingly to Ray, he enjoyed working with the students. Maybe in some small way, he thought, he would be able to give them the benefit of his lifetime of mistakes and bad choices.
One day a girl named Sophie approaches Ray, “Hey Mr. Ray,” the students call him Mr. Ray, it is removed from friendship while still maintaining a sense of familiarity, “can I ask you something?”
“Sure Sophie, what is it?” Ray answers gently.
Tears well up in the young girl’s eyes as she blurts out, “My boyfriend is nineteen and wants me to leave school and go with him to Nevada where he has a job with his Uncle.” She fiddles with the rubber case around her cell phone as she continues, “I don’t have anyone I can rely on for good advice. My parents are much too busy working; they have convinced themselves that the McMasion, the dinners out five times a week, and the yearly vacations to Hilton Head are all for my benefit. My father never denies me anything I want and calls me his ‘Little Princess’ as if I’m still six years old. And my mother wants so desperately to recapture her youth and be my friend instead of my parent that she tries to dress, talk, and act like my friends at school. My parents don’t give me rules and discipline why should I trust them to give me advice and guidance? Anyway, my friends all say I should listen to what my heart is telling me. What do you think?”
Ray looks at the girl pensively and posits his advice, “Look at me Sophie.” The young girl raises her head and looks into Ray’s shop-worn eyes that look back at the world like old wood windows in a dilapidated century home in need of paint and putty. They are eyes that have seen life’s pleasures and pain, life’s too few awesome days and too many prosaic ones. They are eyes that have belied subterfuge and acrimony and have openly expressed happiness and love. They are eyes that have cried a mountain of tears and laughed in their own way at the ubiquitous humor of everyday life.
“Don’t ever follow your heart; it will always lead you astray. Prisons are full of people that have followed their hearts, so are rehabs, and so are the rundown, roach-infested apartments of single mothers who once followed their hearts and the men they thought they loved.”
“Sophie, what does your intellect say?” Ray continues, “That is what you should follow; reason and judgment, not emotion and fleeting instant gratification. What is your intellect telling you would be the best path for your life? Don’t disrespect yourself by following your heart. You deserve more.”
Ray became known among the students as someone who tells it like it is, that is what they liked about him. In a time when so many of their parents, teachers, and other authority figures tried hard to be a friend to the teenagers in their precious charge, Ray embodied through his demeanor and words that he was most certainly not a friend. They had enough friends their own age, what they needed from the adults in their lives was guidance, not friendship.
Ray’s road had been marked by potholes, and frequent trips into deep ditches. Maybe, just maybe, he thought, his experience in what not to do could help one or two of these young people to make better choices for their lives. One of Ray’s favorite quotes he shared with the students was by the nineteenth century German leader Otto Von Bismarck:
Any fool can learn from his own mistakes, a truly wise man learns from
the mistakes of others.
What Ray realized since his recent illness was that he took from the students he knew through the years as much healing and redemption as he had hoped to leave them of wisdom and experience.
Now, standing by his ball that he and his friends had just spent ten minutes locating, Ray wondered if he had reached even one student in the years he dispensed his lifetime of hard won wisdom.
Ray lines up his shot. He has a small window between the trees through which he can see the fairway onto which he hopes to place his ball. Ray decides to use his seven-iron, played back in his stance to keep the ball low so as to avoid the low-hanging branches. He pulls back on his club about three quarters of the way and guides it to his ball. Ray’s ball shoots through the trees and lands on the fairway comprising the second leg of this brutal par five.
“Nice out Ray!” exclaims Frank.
Ray smiles, for in a larger sense he knows that he has made it out of the trees.
The Sand Trap
Elizabeth Simpson removes Ray Taylor’s bedding from the washing machine and places it into the dryer. She moves with great purpose and alacrity back to Ray’s bedroom where she begins to straighten, dust, and vacuum. As she moves the vacuum cleaner back and forth over the worn carpet she sees it.
She cannot understand how she could have missed it until now. Folded neatly into an envelope bearing her name, and leaned up against Ray’s Bluetooth speaker on top of his dresser, is a hand-written note. It simply reads:
Elizabeth, thank you for shouldering the burden of this broken and imperfect
man. You have brought healing where there is no cure and health that
transcends the physical, in what have been the waning days of my life. I know I do
not deserve your kindness, but know that neither has it gone unappreciated. P.S. I
have heard the screaming and it is beautiful.
Elizabeth sits on the edge of the stripped bed and sobs uncontrollably.
Ray Taylor stands in a fairway bunker on the fifth hole at Eagle’s Knob where he has moments before hit his drive. The bunkers at Eagle’s Knob are deep and foreboding. Many a’ golfer has used multiple strokes extricating their ball from the monstrous hazards. Ray is expecting to do the same. The bunker in which he is currently trapped does not disappoint, and three shots later Ray is finally in the fairway. He exits the hole achieving a quadruple bogie, four strokes over par.
Sitting in the golf cart slowly puffing on his cigar Ray Taylor thinks about all of life’s bunkers in which he has found himself throughout the years. But the one that comes to mind as the crowning achievement of Ray Taylor’s spectacular career of landing himself in bunkers is The Third Man episode.
It is a 2am rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” Frank has set as the ringtone on his phone that wakes him from a dead sleep, and unfortunately wakes his surly wife as well. “Did you forget to turn off your phone again?” she asks with irritation in her voice.
“Go back to sleep, it is probably just a client that needs extricated from some trouble.” Frank says with a certain amount of irritation in his voice.
The display on his phone tells him he is half right. The photo shows a grinning Ray Taylor with a cigar stuck in his mouth as the smoke encircles his head. Frank remembers it was taken at a golf outing his firm held a few years back. He liked the photo because it showed Ray at his happiest, and that is why Frank used it.
Frank answers the call as he walks into the living room, “Ray, what the hell are you doing calling this time of night? Are you drunk?”
Ray’s voice is in stark contrast to the picture of him on Frank’s phone, “Frank, I need your help, now!”
“What’s going on Ray?” Frank responds, barely recognizing Ray’s voice. It was not an inebriated voice but something different.
Ray desperately answers his friend’s request with a plea absent of explanation, “I cannot explain over the phone, can you please just get to my place as quickly as possible?”
Frank agrees and tries to soothe his friend at the same time, “Okay, okay buddy I will be there as quick as I can.”
Frank hangs up the phone and returns to the bedroom and throws on a pair of jeans, a hoody, and his black Armani overcoat. He is putting on his Nike Air Jordan’s when his wife stirs,
“Where are you going this time of night?”
“Ray’s got himself into a bit of a scrape and needs my help.” Frank answers his wife.
“What else is new?” she says cynically as she rolls over and falls back asleep.
Before pulling his car out of the garage Frank opens the glove box and removes his nine millimeter Glock pistol. He prays he does not need it, but by the urgency and desperation in Ray’s voice he is not sure what to expect when he arrives at Ray’s.
Standing at Ray’s front door Frank considers just turning around and going back home. He thinks his wife is probably right the many times she has said that Ray should remove himself from his own soup. Frank is nothing if not loyal, and he loves his friend. He checks the Glock in his waistband and rings the bell.
Frank nervously looks behind him as he waits for a response from the bell. The door opens quickly, a strong hand pulls him inside, and he is thrown against the wall. Two men frisk him and one grabs the gun from his waistband.
“What were you going to do with this?” The Third Man says. He is the leader of the group of strangers and is now standing five feet in front of Frank after his rather thorough employee tossed him the gun.
The Third Man is more than just a numerical acknowledgement of the number of strangers in the room; it is the moniker of the man currently speaking to Frank. He is a local “businessman” who is known to have connections to organized crime. He is also a huge Orson Welles fan and took his nickname from the legend’s movie of the same title. He is so obsessed with his nom de guerre that he always makes sure he has only two other men with him so that he can be true to The Third Man name.
“A guy can never be too careful these days with myriad unsavory characters roaming free.” Franks says coolly and then adds, “Forgive me; I forgot to whom I was speaking. I meant the many different unsavory characters.”
The Third Man girds his most patronizing voice and responds to Frank’s insult, “Thank you for the clarification counselor. The university at which I matriculated and from which I eventually earned my Masters of Business Administration. The same university attended by James Madison; Princeton University, was remiss in teaching me big words like myriad. I assumed your friend here was calling a life preserver, not an English professor.” He points to Ray slumped in a recliner. The light is dim, but even with a Lilliputian amount of light Frank can see Ray has been badly roughed up.
Ray’s eyes are swollen almost shut and his lips are bloody and swollen as well, which would account for his odd-sounding voice over the phone. He is clenching his mid-section, a sign that he has been repeatedly punched or kicked there.
The Third Man continues, “Now, I was just having a Tet a Tet with your associate here and decided that remuneration for my services rendered thirty days prior would be forthcoming immediately.” He walks over to Frank and extends his hand, “Do we have a deal counselor.”
Thirty five years of lawyering has taught Frank that once one is considered weak there is no point to negotiation. And accepting The third Man’s initial offer would make him look weak indeed. Even when negotiating with a man that has as dangerous a caliber as the one standing in front of him now, Frank knows he must project strength. So Frank decides to offer The Third Man invective in lieu of a handshake.
“Forgive me for not shaking your hand,” Frank says in a tone a dedicated erudite would find boorish, “but I have made it a lifelong policy not to touch garbage.”
Ray is horrified by his friend’s apparent obtuseness with regards to the gravity of the situation. And his apparent ignorance about the reputation of the man he has just characterized as the previous week’s chicken bones, leftover pizza, and coffee grounds.
The third man wraps his rather large hand around Frank’s throat and pushes him against the wall, “Does this situation look like a joke to you Mr. Seinfeld? I could end your pathetic life in an instant.”
Frank’s voice remains as calm as if he is reading a dull legal brief, “Yes, I suppose you could, but then you would never see a dime of your money. Unless you think this dead beat is going to pick it off a magical money tree he has growing in the back yard.” Frank motions to Ray in the chair. The only sign of nerves on Frank is a small bead of sweat dangling from his left earlobe like cheap costume jewelry on a prostitute plying her trade on a Saturday night.
The Third Man knows all too well that physical intimidation only works when the target of that intimidation has fear, and this guy, he thinks to himself, appears to have none.
“So what has your brilliant legal mind constructed as a means by which I might be compensated?” The Third Man says as he loosens his grip from around Frank’s throat.
Frank remembers reading in the newspaper about an associate of The Third Man who is currently being held and will soon be adjudicated. And it is with that associate in mind that Frank inks his deal; sort of speak, “I give you half the money Ray owes you in cash…”
The Third Man does not let Frank conclude the terms of his deal before interrupting, “What? I take only payment in full; this ain’t some kind of swap meet. Excuse me; this is not some kind of swap meet.”
Frank continues, seemingly unaware of The Third Man’s interruption, “You have an associate by the name of Warren B. Stoll, a.k.a. Jumpy?”
“Yeah, what about him?” The Third Man says showing some curiosity.
Frank now has The Third Man very curious, asking questions whose answers are dependent on Frank. “Jumpy has recently found himself in a bit of a sticky situation, is that not correct?” Frank now takes control of the conversation; The Third Man has no other choice but to follow with a response.
“Yeah, a bum rap if you ask me. What about it?”
“In addition to half the money Ray owes you in cash, I assure a quality legal representation for Jumpy, and I am sure a speedy dismissal of all charges against him.”
“How can you guarantee an acquittal, do you know the DA?” The Third Man asks with a certain amount of skepticism.
“Let’s just say I know enough about him to be dangerous…to him. Specifically something that would end his rather lucrative career.” Frank boasts.
“Well, well, well counselor it looks like you have the stench of garbage on you as well.” The Third Man accuses.
“The difference is I am wallowing in garbage to save my friend.” Frank says defensively.
“That is moral relativism.” The Third Man pragmatically volleys his response and continues, “Motivation matters little. The reason you are willing to lower yourself into the slime of blackmail does not make it any less slimy. You know it is blackmail, I know it is blackmail, and soon the DA will feel the sting of being the target of that blackmail. So don’t try to pretty it up and place a bow on it by talking about higher motives. If your friend would not have stupidly made a mess of his business with me, you would have saved your little piece of knowledge against the DA until such a time you could get something else you wanted.”
Of course Frank knows The Third Man is right. So when The Third Man nods approvingly, “You got a deal counselor. Nice doing business with you.” and sticks out his hand, this time Frank shakes it.
As The Third Man and his goons leave Ray’s place The Third Man hands Frank his gun as a quarterback would hand off a football to one of his running backs as he says, “I never keep a man’s gun unless he has drawn it on me.” As he passes Frank The Third Man adds in a much icier and menacing tone, “Once that has happened he will no longer have need of one.”
And then The Third Man and his associates are gone. Ray is dumbfounded by his friend’s performance and ability to make a deal that literally saved his life. He notices the bead of sweat is still dangling from Frank’s left earlobe.
“That was a close call buddy; I really owe you big time.” Ray releases his fear as relief and he rises from the chair. Frank, standing in front of him swings and lands his right fist on Ray’s left cheek. Ray stumbles back into the chair as Frank leans over him.
Frank takes Ray to the woodshed, “Jesus Ray, when are you going to grow up and be an adult? I don’t even want to know what kind of scheme led you to do business with someone like The Third Man, nor do I want to know how you would even know such a dirt bag. I will tell you one thing; you are going to repay every dime, plus my standard fee for the work I do in extricating Jumpy from his troubles. But listen to me closely Ray, if you ever do anything like this again I will not bail you out, don’t even ask. Next time you can wind up at the bottom of the lake wearing the latest fashion in cement over-shoes. You got me Ray?”
Ray sheepishly answers his friend, “Yeah, Frank, I got you.”
Frank walks towards the door, and before he reaches it, turns his head and sarcastically says, “Better get some ice Ray; it looks like you have a little boo-boo there.” He hated being so rough on his friend, but as the song goes; you gotta be cruel to be kind.
Ray sits in his chair and feels the sting of Frank’s anger, it hurts more than the physical ones inflicted by The Third Man and his goons, but he knows he deserves them all. Sitting in the chair with swollen eyes and lips, and an ache in his stomach that is more than just physical, Ray reflects on what has just transpired. With tears welling up in his eyes he drifts off to sleep.
Ray Taylor sits next to his friend and doctor on the long drive between the fifth green and the sixth tee. The exceptionally long trek between holes gives him time to reflect upon The Third Man episode.
It seemed to be the modus operandi of Ray’s existence, whether it was a career, family, or a woman; he just lacked the ability to allow consistency into his life. As much as the entirety of his being screamed out for him to remain on a path that led to happiness, he refused it in favor of the unknown.
His relationship with Elizabeth is very much apropos of the positive aspects of his relationship with the last woman with whom Ray was in love. Not that he was in love with Elizabeth in the romantic sense, nor could their relationship be called long term. After all, he was dying and she was his guide to whatever came next. But in another time and place, Ray thought:
Ray Taylor sits in an overstuffed armchair with his feet up on an ottoman stroking the furry orange cat in his lap. He hears the front door open, “It must be mommy coming home.” he says soothingly to the cat. He then turns towards the door, “How was your day babe?”
She looks lovingly into his eyes and answers his query with a kiss, “I’m glad to be home with you.”
“Are you talking to me or the cat?” Ray chides her.
“Well of course the cat.” she answers sarcastically.
They both laugh as he replaces the kitty in his lap with his wife. As he holds his wife in his arms and soothes away the stress of her job, Ray tries to remember how long they have been together. Time means little when one is with the person he loves, ten years or thirty, they are the same. All that exists is the two traveling the road together. Time neither drags or speeds, it just exists, with the two filling in the spaces with their love for each other.
Ray knows better than to press Elizabeth about her day with the dying, years of marriage have taught him that much. She will share those details with him in her own time, or maybe she will keep them to herself. He was there to love her and she to love him, nothing else mattered.
It was winter when they met and the next when they married. Ray never had much luck with relationships; that is until Elizabeth. It always felt as though he was in a deep and unforgiving sand trap when it came to love. Then like magic his ball flies from the trap and lands on the green and rolls into the cup. That is how it is with Elizabeth; he has finally achieved a completeness he has never known.
Ray drifts off to sleep in the golf cart in which he is riding thinking about what could have been and is suddenly jerked back to Eagle’s Knob as the cart pulls up and stops at the sixth tee.
Reading the Green
To many golfers one of the toughest parts of the game is reading greens. That is the ability to perceive the sometimes slight, and sometimes more obvious, undulations and slopes in the surface of the green between the player’s ball and the hole. When done correctly it is the perfect marriage of geometry and positive and negative acceleration.
Putting is the most allusive of all golf skills precisely because every green is different, and in fact, every green has a thousand variations depending on the position of one’s ball on the surface.
Geometry and the principles of acceleration are the furthest things from Ray Taylor’s mind as he and his golf companions approach the sixth green at Eagle’s Knob. All three are on the green, although the doctor has the best chance at par, being within six feet of the hole and laying three on this par-four hole.
Ray’s ball is the furthest from the hole, a good thirty feet, after having flubbed his approach shot. Ray stands behind his ball dangling his putter in front of him in an attempt to read the surface of the green. So much of golf depends on the minute and slight variations of the lay of the land upon which the green is constructed. And a golfer’s ability to perceive the subtle can determine the difference between a good and bad score on a hole.
Perceiving the subtle has never been Ray Taylor’s strength, on or off the golf course. There has always been a disinterested detachment in the way he lived his life. It is as if he was a spectator in his own existence, instead of an active participant. Most of Ray’s time on this earth he has felt like a leaf floating down a stream without much control over where he went or at what speed.
It was as if Ray was watching himself in a movie. No matter how loudly he screamed at the image of himself on the screen, it mattered little to his two-dimensional self. It plowed ahead unfettered in bad decision-making.
It was that way in his mid-twenties when he left his sales job, sold all of his earthly possessions at the time except his guitar and his golf clubs, and moved to Nashville with a thousand dollars in a bank envelope. He knew it was a bad idea, and yet he was unable to read the green that was between where he was and where his immediate future would ultimately take him.
Ray knew little, if anything at all, about where he was going. With no preparations like researching the job or housing markets in Nashville, he packed his car and took off; leaving all his problems and troubles at the time behind him, or so he thought. But a man cannot run from his troubles without running headlong into them.
He got into town and found the nastiest, dirtiest, and filthiest part of Nashville; this is where Ray Taylor made his new home. He rented a depressed and roach-infested little room with a closet-sized bath and a single bed in the living room. It did not take Ray long to fall in league with the desperate souls that inhabit the less glamorous environs of Nashville.
It is an early morning barroom that Ray enters with his guitar in hand; he sits down on a stool and orders a beer. It is a time of day that only third-shifters, alcoholics, and the unemployed are drinking. The bartender serves Ray a beer and then mockingly asks, “Do you play that thing, or just carry it around for effect?”
As if that bartender has not seen a thousand Ray Taylors over the years he has slung drinks at the bottom of the Nashville music scene. But Ray misses the sarcasm and thinks the bartender is being genuine about wanting to hear him play. Before the bartender can tell him otherwise, Ray takes his instrument out of its case and begins playing “You Are My Sunshine.”
Halfway through the first chorus a man with a trumpet begins to accompany him, and shortly thereafter another man adds his banjo licks to the mix. The performance is rounded out by a woman at the bar who contributes harmony to Ray’s vocals.
When the foursome finishes Ray asks the bartender, “What do you think?”
As the bartender wipes the top of the bar without looking up, he blithely answers, “I hate that song.”
Ray is deeply offended and leaves in a huff.
Ray’s next adventure misreading the green before him is in befriending a sixty year old man who claims to be a professional prize-fighter from the 1950s. Mike shows Ray pictures of a young man in boxing trunks, wearing boxing gloves, and striking a pose as if he were in the ring with an aggressive opponent. The young man bears a resemblance to old Mike; to someone looking for a way out of his old life and into a new one like Ray, it does not really matter if it is true, Ray wants to believe it is.
Old Mike lives in a worse place than Ray has rented. What Ray fails to see is that Mike is looking for a way out as well. He is just biding his time in that roach-infested motel room until an easy mark like Ray came along. Some sap with a few bucks, of which Mike could relieve him to finance his trip out of that God forsaken town.
Mike convinces Ray that he is still well-connected to major players in the fight world and he can set Ray up in the fight-promotion business. He was going to set Ray up alright, not with a lucrative career, but with heart-ache and poverty. Mike cons Ray out of a hundred bucks to, in his words, “Impress this player,” he knows in town by, “prying him with a good meal.” Oh, and he also convinces Ray to let him use his car, Ray’s most valuable possession at the time.
Mike wrecks Ray’s car and leaves it on the side of the road, which is where the police find it and subsequently have it towed to the impound lot. Ray is without his car in a strange city and $200 poorer from the impound fees in addition to the hundred he had given Mike, who disappears without a trace.
A reasonable person would have gone back home at this point, but Ray is not done misreading the green before him. He takes comfort in the arms of a woman who shows interest in him at the bar.
The pair takes a wild ride in a rented car through the worst part of Nashville in order to “hook-up” with a friend of hers who can get them some coke; cocaine that is.
Ray sits in a rundown apartment in a public housing development while his new friend is in the other room making a deal. He does not dare move from the torn, stained, and putridly smelly sofa which the rather large gentleman has told him to occupy while he and Amanda make a deal for the coke.
A pair of pit bulls keeps a watch on Ray, using low rumbling growls to limit Ray’s movements. What seems like an eternity passes before Amanda comes out of the other room and asks Ray for a hundred and fifty bucks for the “stuff.” A few minutes later she returns and demands, “Let’s go.”
The two lost souls ride the asphalt tributaries that flow through some of the best and worst sections of Nashville; their specious sojourn fueled by the white powder they freely stuff up their noses. They laugh at the swells in Oak Hills and mock the homeless in the damp and lonely alleys and dirty vignettes of downtown Nashville, eventually falling asleep in Ray’s hovel around daybreak.
When Ray wakes up later in the day he finds no trace of Amanda, or the rest of his money that he had so carelessly left on top of the dresser. Ray hocks his golf clubs in a local pawn shop; its walls festooned with broken dreams in the form of guitars, banjos, and other musical instruments. He uses the money to buy a bus ticket back home.
Ray leaves Nashville with just his guitar and a couple bags of clothes, like some bad cliché one would only find in a country song. He chain-smokes cigarettes as he waits in the Greyhound station at the other end for Frank to pick him up.
“How was Nashville?” Frank asks knowingly.
“Don’t ask.” Ray answers dejectedly.
Frank drives Ray to his mother’s house where he is to stay until he can right himself again.
Ray strikes his ball with his putter. It rolls towards the hole and then catches a wicked break five feet from the cup that Ray did not see. The ball keeps rolling and ends its misadventure off the front edge of the green.
Ray smiles a painful smile and thinks, “Well that’s par for the course.” Again he has not seen the breaks and dangers that lay before him. His hasty choice has put him in a worse position; just as it had with the Nashville decision so many years prior.
Improving Your Lie
A player of golf will sometimes move his ball around with his club head in order to place it on top of the grass or move it off a patch of dirt. This activity is called improving your lie.
The professional golfer never improves his lie. In fact, according to the rules that govern professional golf, he cannot even remove any twigs, leaves, or other debris from around his ball. He must play it as it lies.
Ray Taylor and his friends are not professional golfers, so when Ray’s drive on the par-three seventh hole at Eagle’s Knob rolls on top of some dirt, he gently coxes it onto a patch of grass using the club head of his pitching wedge.
Ray swings at his ball and it shanks horribly to the right. Improving one’s lie does not always guarantee a positive outcome. This has been true for Ray both on and off the golf course.
Many times Ray has tried to improve his lie; from career choices to investment decisions. Ray seemed to have a knack for not parlaying a better lie into a better outcome for his life. He especially has done himself no favors when it comes to relationships, choosing for the most part to avoid the sometimes messy entanglements of the romantic kind. Yet at the same time longing for the stability and oneness they can bring.
Ray approached romantic relationships like a gambler, always thinking the next hand was going to be the “big hand.” He was never satisfied to walk away from the table with the winnings he had accumulated, he always wanted more. Like a drug addict who always thought the next high would be the best high; this is the way in which Ray Taylor had approached romantic relationships. And just like an addiction, it had left him alone for most of his adult life.
Ray Taylor’s behavior of fleeing a romance like one would flee a burning building was never more on display than it was in his relationship with Margaret. She was a kind and funny woman who Ray enjoyed being around. He is not quite sure why they ended their intimate life together. Ray determined it was his inability to commit in any meaningful way. But he once again had not improved his life after having improved his lie.
They seemed to have a rhythm to their relationship, like two musicians who played the same tune. They liked many of the same things and always had plenty to laugh about whenever they were together. And even after they had broken off their romantic relationship they had remained best friends.
Margaret was the one who helped Ray find and hire Elizabeth when his illness had progressed to a stage where he needed in-home care. Ray gently smiles as he recalls the two women hitting it off right from the start, with Margaret telling Elizabeth, “If he gives you any trouble I am just a phone call away, and I will come right over and swat his snout with a rolled up newspaper.”
Elizabeth does not miss a beat as she joins in the fun at Ray’s expense, “Oh mam, you don’t have to worry about that, I have had to deal with more than my fair share of cranky old men.”
“Who are you calling a cranky old man?” Ray desperately struggles against the odds of winning this battle with these two women. “Watch your P’s and Q’s,” Ray adds, “I can let you go as easily as I have retained you.”
Somehow Elizabeth knows even at this early stage that Ray has no such intentions. Maybe it is the jesting lilt in his tone, or maybe it is the support she feels from Margaret. Elizabeth knows she is there for the duration as she turns to Margaret and answers Ray’s challenge, “Maybe I will need that rolled up newspaper sooner rather than later.”
The three new friends, thrown together by a fatal illness carried by one of them, laugh together at the jovial banter. But the undercurrent which would remain through the end of their earthly friendship persisted from the beginning. Elizabeth knew her relationship with Ray was limited, just as it was with all her patients. Both Ray and Margaret knew likewise.
Ray Taylor shakes his head as if he is trying to remove the past from his mind and replace it with the present. Which at this moment has him spending two more shots on this relatively easy par-three to land his ball on the green about twenty feet from the hole. He is already lying four and would consider it a moral victory if he could leave this hole with a double-bogie. No easy task considering that means he has to sink this twenty foot putt.
Ray thinks about his shanked second shot and how it placed him in peril on this hole. But more importantly he begins to think about how he has been placed in peril by the shanks he has committed in his life after having improved his lie. Once again those shaken thoughts of the past return.
Ray Taylor cannot imagine that his windfall made possible by a profitable part–time Internet gig could “shank” so badly. He was in his forties before he made a serious effort to save for his eventual retirement. An extra couple of grand a month was just what Ray needed to help catch up. And catch up is exactly what he did, managing to increase his wealth from thoroughly pathetic to just mildly pathetic in a relatively short period of time.
But Ray wanted more wealth faster. His desperation to increase his lagging retirement account, bridled with his addictive personality, made him a perfect candidate for trading stock options. An activity that is more closely associated with the behavior of a gambler than it is with the behavior of a wise investor.
But Ray Taylor was not one to learn his lessons easily, nor was he one to give up on the feeling that the next one would be the big one. He kept thinking he would “win” back all his losses with just “one good score.” Ray did have some “big scores,” it is what made him keep shoveling his money into the options furnace.
All the while he was deep in the blood fever of trading options, Ray was sitting in that theater watching himself and screaming at the screen to stop. He screamed when two-dimensional Ray lost ten grand, and then twenty grand, and he screamed even louder when two-dimensional Ray lost twice that much and more. All the hard work of saving (the “improving his lie”) was made null and void by his terrible shank of trying to “get rich quick.”
Ray looks over his putt on the seventh green at Eagle’s Knob and wonders how he could have played his previous shots differently to have resulted in a better outcome. From the vantage point of twenty thousand feet Ray can now see clearly how he could have avoided the shank of his investment debacle. He strikes his ball and it rolls towards the hole and comes to rest about three feet from the cup.
He sinks the putt for a triple bogie six. Once again improving his lie does not translate into a better outcome for Raymond Taylor. He wonders why the bane of his existence seems to be his own lack of control and discipline.
Elizabeth removes Ray’s bedding from the dryer and fluffs the sheets gently. She folds them neatly and methodically as if she is providing medical attention to a delicate baby bird that has broken its wing.
She places the folded pile of bedding at the foot of Ray’s stripped bed and smoothes the top of them with her hand. She is transported by her memory to just a couple of days prior as she sat in a chair at Ray Taylor’s bedside while she carefully filed his fingernails.
It is one of the little extras that Elizabeth provides her patients. And she would often say, “There is no reason the dying should have to suffer badly manicured nails.” It was a small thing, like the fresh cut flowers she would sometimes bring to brighten the room, or the little gifts she found that would bring a smile to her patients’ faces.
Ray gently takes Elizabeth’s hand in his and he speaks quietly as he stares into a space in the room beyond Elizabeth.
The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth from heaven like
Gentle rain on the places below; it is twice blessed, it blesseth he who
Giveth and it blesseth he who taketh.
Ray turns his full gaze back towards Elizabeth and states matter- of-fact, “Shakespeare.”
“Yes, The Merchant of Venice.” Elizabeth adds.
“Do you think God will bless me with his mercy Elizabeth?” Ray ponders more than asks.
Elizabeth gently pats his hand reassuringly and says, “I think he already has.”
Ray looks into the gentle face of this woman who has come to know him in the very worst time of his life and responds, “Yes, I guess He has.”
Elizabeth, still standing at the foot of Ray’s bed with her hand on the stack of sheets softly whispers, “Good-bye Ray.” For she knows he will not return to use them. It is a bond that sometimes exists between the dying and those that care for the dying; the latter can feel the former’s exit from this earthly life even if they are not with them at the moment of their departure.
Ray Taylor drifts off to sleep as the golf cart in which he is riding rolls towards the eighth tee at Eagle’s Knob; a short par-five of about 450 yards.
“Ray! Ray! Are you okay?” he hears his friend John Lafferty say with a great amount of concern.
“Yeah, just catching a few Z’s” Ray answers his friend.
“We don’t have to finish.” Frank says walking up to the cart. He can see his friend is looking much worse than when they began the round and does not want to exhaust him further. “Maybe you should save your energy.”
Ray sits up in the seat, places the last remaining inches of his cigar in his mouth, takes a drag, and answers, “You’d like that, just when I’m about to catch you?” he adds, “Besides, I have been saving my energy for the last year for this, there is nothing else.”
Ray swings his legs out of the cart, places his cigar in the cup holder on the cart, and attempts to stand. He stumbles a bit but catches himself just as his friends move to his aid. He wobbles to the tee, once again using his club as a cane with which to steady himself.
Ray, looking as wobbly as Charlie Chaplin mid-comedic routine, swings at his ball and nearly falls. The ball jets through the air high and straight. It lands in the middle of the fairway approximately 250 yards from the tee box.
“Your best drive of the day!” Dr. Lafferty says with an excitement in his voice that is rare for him.
“Best drive of the day? The best drive of your life. You really nailed it Ray!” adds Frank.
Ray stumbles back to the cart, mundanely countering his friends’ excited analysis of his drive, “It’ll play.”
Both John and Frank manage good drives, but as Frank states, “Ray’s drive makes ours look like turds in comparison.”
The good doctor nods in agreement.
Ray lofts his second shot into the air and it lands about forty yards from the green and seems to roll forever as the threesome watch it with anticipation. The ball makes the green and rolls to within thirty feet of the cup. “Look at this guy,” Frank says jealously, “within a putt of an eagle.” An Eagle is two strokes under par for the hole.
“Thanks for jinxing me; you dick.” Ray scolds his friend.
“Well you should at least get a birdie.” John Lafferty says, adding his two cents.
“Et tu Brutus.” Ray responds.
Both Frank and John get on the green in four.
Ray looks at his ball’s position from both sides of the hole and then takes his position over it. He stands there, alternately looking from his ball to the cup. It seems as though he contemplates the putt for hours, and then strokes the ball with his putter.
The ball rolls smoothly across the green and slants away from the hole to Ray’s left, then it catches a small undulation in the surface of the green and realigns itself straight at the hole and drops into the center of the cup.
The three erupt with a cheer that would wake the dead. High fives and fist bumps are coming towards Ray faster than he can return them. His friends fall to their knees in front of him and bow, chanting in unison, “All hail eagle-man.”
Ray smiles, turns, and walks slowly back to the cart. He picks up the worn butt of his cigar and takes a big puff. He thinks to himself: the mercy of God sometimes takes the form of small things, like sinking an eagle putt on the eighth green at Eagle’s Knob. He wonders how many times in his life he has not appreciated such merciful moments.
Ray Taylor smiles as he recalls the day that fate and Chester L. intervened in his life to pull him from the brink of an abyss not only comprised of financial ruin, but of a deep emotional depression.
Ray sits on one of the knob-shaped barstools at the bar in the Eagle’s Knob clubhouse. His two friends, John Lafferty and Frank Godles, sit on either side of him. The threesome has just completed a round of golf and now imbibes cold beers and chows down on deli sandwiches, an item for which Eagle’s Knob is famous. They consist of fresh baked bread made by a baker employed by Chester L. and are stacked high with only the freshest deli meats and crispy lettuce and firm tomato.
“Man, did I stink it up out there today. My golf game is as bad as my employment prowess of late.” Ray blurts out in a subdued and almost depressed tone. Ray Taylor is in a familiar position, one which he has occupied much too often in his life; he is unemployed.
“Often times the most productive change is that which circumstance forces upon us. There is something better for you out there Ray, I can just feel it.” Doctor Lafferty says as if he is giving medical advice to a sick patient.
“Yeah Ray, maybe you can become a professional whiner.” His other friend, Frank Godles, states unsympathetically. But his terse and seemingly callous remark actually comes from a place of great consternation. He does not want to encourage his friend’s downward spiral into depression. Frank is a firm believer that sometimes the best hand up is a swift kick in the ass.
Before Ray has a chance to return Frank’s caustic remark, Chester L. walks up behind the threesome and greets them with hearty slaps on the backs, “How was the golf today guys?”
“Well I will answer your query this way Chester L.;” Frank takes the liberty of responding for the group, “a bad day on the golf course still beats a good day at work.”
Chuckling politely at Frank’s comment which he has now heard at least a thousand times in the years running Eagle’s Knob, Chester L. turns and places his hand on Ray’s shoulder and asks, “Hey Ray, you still looking for a job?”
“Does the Pope defecate in the woods? Is the bear Catholic?” Ray responds jokingly.
“I am not privy to the Pontiff’s scatological habits, or any religious affiliation of the bear.” Chester L. states seriously and continues, “See that gentleman over at that table?” Chester L. asks Ray, pointing to a lone figure at one of the tables in the dining area of the Eagle’s Knob club house.
“Yeah, what about him?” Ray asks, sounding almost annoyed.
“He is Bill Ross, the Superintendent of schools. I happen to know he is looking to fill a maintenance position at one of the schools in the district. You interested?” Chester L. says, undeterred by Ray’s blasé attitude.
Ray manages a disinterested sounding, “Sure.”
Chester L. saunters over to Superintendent Ross’s table with Ray Taylor in tow. Ray feels like a child being taken to the doctor’s office by his mother. But if it gets him a job he would be willing to hold Chester L.’s rather large calloused hand on the way over.
Chester L. offers the Superintendent one of his hearty greetings that are a staple at Eagle’s Knob, “Bill, how’s the golf game?” Bill Ross is startled as he looks up, as if he was lost in thought and did not see his visitors approaching
“Just great Chester L.,” Bill begins to answer as he places the fork in his hand beside the plate of salad he was eating, “that advice you gave me about my grip on the club controlling the fade and draw of the ball has really been paying off.”
“I’m glad to have helped, we’ll have to play a round soon. Bill I want you to meet Raymond Taylor,” Chester L. gets right to the point of his and Ray’s intrusion on Superintendent Ross’s lunch, “he’s the guy I was telling you about that might be a good fit for that position you have open. It is still open isn’t it?”
Superintendent Ross still seated but shaking Ray’s hand answers, “Yes, yes it is. Well Ray it is nice to meet you, Chester L. here has told me many good things about you.”
“Yeah well,” Ray quips as if he is out with friends instead of meeting a perspective employer, “he doesn’t know where all the dead bodies are buried.”
Bill Ross looks at Ray inquisitively, as if he is studying the results of a science experiment. He then decides Ray’s comment was an attempt at using a little humor to mitigate the tension he must be feeling. In the ensuing years as his employee Ray would learn the true insightfulness of his employer. Bill seemed to have a true gift for separating the grain from the chaff and looking deep into the true character of a man.
“Well you two don’t need me hanging around, and I have a million things to do.” Chester L. says as he walks away from the table. Ray turns his head in the direction of the exiting Chester L. and feels like a child being left at the school door on the first day of class.
Bill Ross continues with Ray still standing, “How do you like teenagers Ray?”
“Medium to medium rare, otherwise they can be a little dry and stringy.” Ray involuntarily responds as if he is still on the golf course with John and Frank. The words are still streaming from his mouth as he again is sitting in that theater watching himself on the screen and unable to stop the two-dimensional Ray.
Some perspective employers may have found a gentle way to end the interview. But Bill Ross looks into Ray’s eyes; he is one who truly can use them as windows to the soul. He sees a good and decent man in Ray Taylor who has just put himself in the rough too often in his life. He considers the position he has available, maintenance man at the local high school. He thinks to himself that Ray might be just what the students need and they may be just what he needs at this time in his life.
“Why don’t you have a seat Ray and we’ll talk. Would you like a beverage or something?”
Ray shakes his head in the negative and manages a “No thanks.”
And so begins a relationship of employer-employee, but also a friendship that would endure for the remainder of Ray’s life. As much as anyone in his life, Bill Ross was responsible for shaping, molding, and deepening Ray’s soul.
That day in the clubhouse, at one of the lowest points in his life, Ray Taylor found the blessing of God’s mercy. Something he would not think about as such until the eagle putt on the 8th hole at Eagle’s Knob.
Adding Up the Scores
There comes that time in every round of golf, somewhere around the finish of the eighth hole and the beginning of the ninth, when the players add up their scores thus far. This is the time for self-recrimination about the bad shots, missed opportunities, and miscalculations of the previous eight holes. It is also the time to relive the long drives, close chips, and awesome putts of the previous eight holes as well.
For Ray Taylor, who is on the express train to the next stop in existence, there is neither the time nor the inclination to dwell on past glories and failures. For Ray there is only the next, the last hole. For Ray knows this ninth hole at Eagle’s Knob, on this beautiful sunny day, in the company of his best friends, is not just the last of this round, but the last of his earthly existence.
As the two electric golf carts steel silently up to the ninth tee box at Eagle’s Knob, Frank Godles states the obvious, “Well this is it fellers, the ninth hole.”
John Lafferty jumps from the cart he has just parked and walks around the back of it to where his and Ray’s clubs are secured, “Well I think I am going to use my three-wood and lay up in front of the water.” he analytically proffers his strategy.
The ninth hole at Eagle’s Knob is a par-four with a twenty foot wide chasm of water running the entire width of the fairway. To carry one’s ball over the water, a drive of about 240 yards is needed. Most players “lay up” in front of the water since a second shot is going to be required anyway, and there is no sense in risking the possibility of placing one’s drive in the creek.
John begins to walk to the tee box and realizes Ray has yet to exit the cart. “Hey Ray, you playing this hole?” the good doctor chides.
“Yeah, I’m just savoring this last hole.” Ray answers his golf companion and friend.
John nods, smiles, and continues to the tee. He has just now fully realized that for Frank and him this round is different than it is for Ray. Their pleasure of the game will continue into subsequent rounds. But for Ray, an avid golfer, this is the final hole of his life. It is seldom in life that one knows an event will be the last time one participates in that event.
There is a finality and somberness to it that only the individual going through it can comprehend. And that is why, John Lafferty being a good friend, leaves his dying friend to his private thoughts on this solemn occasion as he joins Frank in the tee box where the pair waits patiently.
Ray slowly makes his way to the ninth tee box, having gotten the eagle on the last hole he is first up on the tee for the ninth. Frank sticks a tee in the ground and John gingerly places Ray’s ball on top of it. The last drive Ray thinks to himself. He hopes he has one more good drive left in him. He contemplates the ball for half a minute or so and then swings his driver.
The ball floats into the air and fades to the right. It lands about 185 yards from the tee in the rough on that side of the fairway. Not a great shot, but the hole is wide open, and being in the right rough is not going to hurt Ray much. He should have a decent lie over there, and with a good second shot he could still make par.
“Not a bad position Ray,” Frank says reassuringly, “you gotta hit a second shot anyway and at least now you’ve taken the water out of play.”
Ray, lumbering away from the tee answers his friend with a non-verbal “thumbs up.”
Ray reflects on the many thousands of holes of golf he has played, and how he was always in a rush to get to the next. He drank rapaciously from what he thought was a bottomless vessel of golf holes. He enjoyed the game of golf without really enjoying each hole. He seldom lived in the presence of the current hole and experienced it fully. It was a lesson from his mother that had taken almost his entire life to learn.
Raymond Taylor sits on the edge of his bed plucking his guitar in a very disinterested manner. The guitar is not foremost in his mind. He has just returned from a short stint on his own, only a couple of days away staying with various friends after having left home in the wake of a fight with his father.
“So you’re back. Have you made your fortune with that thing yet?” Ray Sr. says as he enters the room and greets his prodigal son with his own signature sarcasm. “Next time you will not be welcomed back into this house.” his father adds in a more grave tone.
“Oh was that a welcome,” Raymond shoots back sardonically, “I must have missed the well part.”
Ray Sr. crosses the room and points his finger at his son, “Don’t be a smart-ass. You know, that is your problem Raymond. You take nothing or no one seriously except your own thoughts. Hopefully, before it’s too late you will someday learn that life is not about the want-tos but the have-tos.”
Ray picks the strings on his guitar with his head hanging over the top of the instrument. His father walks out of the room, frustrated at his inability to reach his son. Maybe, he thinks, his son is just a little too much like himself. No matter how hard the senior Taylor tries to save his son from the inequities of his own character flaws, he knows that they will cause 16 year old Ray to walk a path littered with bumps, holes, and drop offs that he will have to find a way to navigate…or not.
Ray’s mother enters his room and sits on the bed beside her troubled son. She gently strokes his long wavy hair with her hand. It is a hand that cooks meals, cleans the house, washes and mends clothes, and even has meted out punishment from time to time. But right now it is a hand of understanding and compassion, Mrs. Taylor’s most practiced and well-developed skills. Ray considers her a saint, if for no other reason than putting up with his father for so many years.
She sits for a minute or two and then speaks, “Ray, don’t wish your life away. Don’t live in the desires of the future or the regrets of the past, just live in the present. It is really all any of us really have. Enjoy God’s gifts today.”
“Gifts, what gifts?” her petulant child demands to know.
“How about the gift of having enough food to eat, clothes on your back, and a family that loves you. There are billions of people in the world who would gladly trade places with you.” Mrs. Taylor enumerates her son’s gifts and continues, “The gift of having all your fingers to play that instrument and make beautiful music. You have many gifts and blessings; it is a sin against God to ignore them as if they don’t exist. Think about it Ray.” she kisses his forehead as only a mother can and then adds, “I love you Ray.”
Ray Taylor stands in the right rough on the number nine hole at Eagle’s Knob, surveying his ball’s lie in the grass. It is a pretty decent lie and by his calculations borne of many years estimating yardage, he guesses he has about sixty yards to carry the water and about 200 yards or so to make the green; still a bit of a poke.
Ray takes a few practice swings with his three-wood and then addresses his ball. For the first time in his life he understands what his mother was trying to tell him all those years ago. It is not the big events in one’s life that create the mosaic of their earthly existence, but all the individual tiles that fit together to complete the whole. Without them there would be no image, no life, nothing. It is as if each sometimes banal event in a person’s life plays an equal role to the more spectacular events in creating the totality of that life. There is no round of golf without each individual shot.
Ray smiles at his belated epiphany and swings his club. His ball sails through the air straight as an arrow and lands about twenty yards in front of the green. He’ll take it, he thinks to himself in relief.
“Nice shot Ray.” John says as he hits his ball into the water.
Frank has already landed his second shot on the green, “Yeah, but not quite as nice as mine though. But if that’s the best you can do Ray it’ll do just fine.”
Ray turns towards his boasting friend and gives him a hearty one finger salute.
“You’re just jealous.” Frank responds verbally to the non-verbal insult from his friend.
The two carts roll up to the edge of the water where the good doctor finally puts his ball on the green, lying four after the penalty stroke for putting his second shot into the water.
The sun is shining brightly as the two carts carrying the three friends roll up beside the ninth green at Eagle’s Knob. John and Frank both walk to the green to examine the position of their balls relative to the hole. Ray walks slowly and wobbly to his ball just twenty yards off the front edge of the green.
Ray Taylor now looks at his friends standing on the green, leaning against their putters, and waiting for the final member of this threesome to chip his ball onto the putting surface. He looks at the blue sky and the leaves on the trees dancing gently to the quiet music of the breeze.
His friends’ voices seem somewhat distorted, and he cannot determine if that is because they are talking to each other in low tones, or if they are addressing him and he is just not able to understand their words.
Ray speaks, but even his own words seem foreign to him. Ray takes a couple of practice swings next to his ball, wobbling as he does. He thinks to himself he will be glad to complete this round. He is exhausted and ready for rest. Golf is joy and disappointment, success and failure, spectacle and commonplace, and exhilaration and exhaustion. Right now, for Raymond Taylor on his way to eternity, whatever that means, golf stands as a barrier to the warm embrace of home.
He swings his club and his ball arches into the air and lands on the green about twenty feet from the cup. The ball rolls towards the hole and sidles up to the edge of the cup and drops in. The ball makes that hollow thunk golfers love to hear as it hits the bottom of the cup. Suddenly Ray’s eyes are sealed shut from a bright white light, brighter and more pure white than he has ever experienced. He struggles to reopen his eyes but everything suddenly goes to black.
The Rain Delay
Approximately a five minute walk from the clubhouse at Eagle’s Knob, nestled among a grove of pine trees is a small chapel. Chester L. had it built in memory of his late wife who passed away five years prior after she lost her struggle with liver cancer.
Her name was Janine, but everyone called her Eaglet. She and Chester L. were inseparable, whether they were at home or at Eagle’s Knob attending to the thousands of details associated with running the golf course and club house. Long term employees would often say they never heard either say a cross word to the other, no matter how hectic things became.
Most mornings just before sunrise, and prior to the chaos of arriving golfers wanting tee times, one can witness Chester L. slowly walking down the stone path to the chapel. He stays inside for fifteen to twenty minutes before returning to the clubhouse to begin his busy day as master of ceremonies at the course he built.
On this morning, the morning of Ray Taylor’s memorial service, Chester L. is personally supervising the kitchen staff preparing the private reception dinner to be held after the service. He is also managing the golfers already arriving, not for the service which is limited by the size of the chapel to around twenty persons, but to participate in a round of golf in honor of Ray Taylor.
John Lafferty and Frank Godles are picking up the tab for everyone’s golf, and Chester L. in turn is donating the money to hospice care for the dying. Additionally he is supplying Monties to anyone who wishes to partake. Most of the golfers attending will be making their own cash donations in clearly marked receptacles for that purpose. The receptacles are of course in the shape of Chester L.’s invention.
John Lafferty and Frank Godles walk the number thirteen fairway at Eagle’s Knob. It is a long and beautifully landscaped par 5, rated one of the top five in the state. Ray often said that if the legend about Jack Nicklaus designing one of the holes at Eagle’s Knob was true, he would put his money on it being number 13.
The two remaining friends of the trio walk slowly, smoking cigars and swapping stories about their departed friend. They stop at a bench located halfway down the length of the fairway and which sets among scattered wood chips under a huge oak tree in the right rough.
“Is this new?” asks Frank.
“Chester L. must have just recently had it installed. Isn’t this where Ray…” John stops mid-sentence. What he started to say but didn’t have to finish because he and his companion both knew without saying, was this was the same spot that Ray always seem to hit his second shot on the thirteenth.
The two men see the plaque at the same moment:
To the memory of Ray Taylor, a guy who played life in the rough
but never stopped trying to improve his lie. We shall miss you
dearly my friend.
Frank speaks first, “That must have been why Chester L. insisted we walk thirteen.”
John, rubbing a tear from the corner of his eye adds, “That sneaky bastard, remind me to give him a swift kick in the nuts when we return.”
There is silence while the two men hold back their tears. They sit on the bench and smoke their cigars. After what seems like an eternity, Frank breaks the silence, “Tell Ray when you see him I am pissed that he left me here alone with you.”
John incredulously responds, “What makes you think I will see him before you do? You are most likely to be the next to go.”
“Why is that?” queries Frank.
“I am a doctor, a man of science.” the good doctor boasts.
“So what does that have to do with anything?” Frank begins his rebuttal, “John Adams, a lawyer, lived a longer life than Ben Franklin, a man of science.”
The two men sit in silence while they finish their cigars and then John stands up slowly, “Well I guess we should be heading to the chapel.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Frank, now standing, says to his remaining friend. The two embrace and walk slowly towards the chapel.
There is a wood scroll over the door of the Eagle’s Knob chapel which reads:
To the memory of Janine “Eaglet” Eagle.
May all who enter these doors drink from
the gentle spirit of her loving soul.
As Frank Godles holds open the chapel door for his friend they are met with the site of early arrivals to Ray Taylor’s memorial service. To one side of the room they see Margaret talking to Ray’s Daughter Brittany and Superintendent Bill Ross. On the other side of the room, seated in a chair and being attended by the always-on-duty healthcare worker Elizabeth, is Ray’s mother.
The two men head straight for the matriarch of the Taylor family. “Mrs. Taylor,” John begins, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
“As I am for yours.” Mrs. Taylor reciprocates. “You know, a parent should never outlive their child.” she adds.
“Speaking for myself, my life would have seen less happiness and light without the friendship of your son.” Frank says as he gently takes the old woman’s hand in his.
“Funny, Ray use to say the same thing about you two. He loved you both deeply.” Mrs. Taylor responds sympathetically.
“Look,” John says as he leans in towards Ray’s mother, “I…I mean both of us,” as he waves his hand in the direction of Frank, “are very sorry about taking Ray out to the course that day. And me a doctor should have known better.”
Before Mrs. Taylor can answer, Elizabeth intercedes, “You shouldn’t be…sorry that is. I can’t think of a better way for Ray to have exited from this earthly life than being with you two, playing the game he loved.”
Ray’s mother nods in agreement and then adds, “You know, Ray Sr. always said he wanted to die on the golf course. Fate conspired against him when it had him languishing in that nursing home the last 18 months of his life. Sitting there day after day, just watching television and the other people watching television, and staring at each other. But not for Ray, because of you two he was spared that final cruelty of life. Thank God for you both.”
Chester L. now calls for everyone to take their seats. There will be no priest or minister officiating at Ray’s service. Not that Ray had anything against men-of-the-cloth, but he said he would rather have the people who knew him best send him off in a simple ceremony. That is exactly what today’s memorial will be: a few words by Chester L., a song, and some spoken thoughts by Frank Godles, written by John Lafferty.
A small table with a plain white cloth stands at the front of the room, upon which sets an urn that contains Ray’s ashes. The final remnants of a life lived. Frank sits on a simple folding chair to the left of Ray’s ashes and Chester L. to the right.
Chester L. rises once everyone is seated and begins to speak, saying all the nice things one says about the dearly departed. He makes a joke about how he thinks Ray still owes him for a round of golf and then chokes up as he says how much he will miss him. He finishes his brief remarks by introducing the song Ray chose specifically for the occasion, Bob Dylan’s Restless Farwell. A fitting bow wrapped snugly around the life of Raymond Taylor.
Oh, all the money that in my whole life I did spend, be it mine right or wrongfully. I let it slip gladly to my friends, to tie up the time most forcefully… begins the song. Frank’s mind drifts to a rain delay he, John, and Ray had once at Myrtle Beach. The three friends stood under a shelter by the clubhouse at Moorland Golf Club, smoking cigars and watching the rain fall violently to the ground.
“It’s not really happening you know?” Ray states as he exhales the smoke from his cigar.
“What isn’t?” Frank takes Ray’s bait.
Ray turns to his friend, “The rain on the golf course.”
John now joins the game with puzzlement in his voice, “What the hell you talking about Ray?”
Ray takes a drag on his cigar and lets the smoke drift out from under the shelter and into the rain. “My dad use to say it never rains on the golf course. When I was a child I believed his statement to be a literal assessment of meteorological fact. As I got older I realized he was speaking in a metaphysical sense, one of the few times he would allow himself to do so. A person never sees the clouds and rain in their life as long as they choose not to.”
Ray continues uninterrupted by his golf companions, “Have you ever thought that this earthly life is just a rain delay for whatever comes next?” Ray drags in the smoke from his cigar, slowly releases it from his mouth, and continues, “We’re all just biding our time until we can get on the course and play. Never really sure when that moment will arrive, we busy ourselves with whatever monotonous things we can to pass the time until finally it is our time.”
John Lafferty rebuttals Ray’s metaphysical explanation of life, “Yes, but those who claim science as their faith may argue that when we die we’re dead; just like the trees, flowers, rabbits, and bears. We as humans just have the intellectual ability and physical acumen to create and acquire distractions. But they’re still just distractions from the inevitable fact that we will some day cease to exist.”
Frank proffers no response or challenge to either of his friends, but rather he studies Ray without saying a word. He concludes that Ray is an optimist, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that optimism is not warranted.
Frank awaits the end of the song as he thinks further about the rain delay. Some people, it is said, walk between the rain drops all their lives. Somehow they escape the damp cold of life’s harshest struggles and pain. They seem to know instinctively the paths to take to avoid the rain.
Ray was not one of those people. In fact he ran headlong into the rain from safer environs and danced in it until it thoroughly drenched him. He would tilt back his head to fully drink in the misfortune and pain. Ray never minded golfing in the rain, Frank remembers, maybe it was because he really could not believe it was happening. Or he chose not to believe it.
Frank is tugged out of his private thoughts by the last refrain of the song; so I’ll make my stand, and remain as I am, and bid farewell and not give a damn. Frank thinks about the words as they hang in the air. It was not that Ray did not care about those around him, just the opposite. He just seemed to not give a damn about himself or making the best of his life that he could.
Frank walks somberly to the perch where Ray’s ashes set. He looks at them, kisses his extended forefinger and middle-finger, and places them gently on the urn. He then turns his gaze towards the assemblage gathered in Ray’s honor. He chokes back the tears welling up from deep inside and begins; “In the beginning there was golf…”