The kid at check-in adds a player to Charlie’s party, the guy in the light blue shirt, up at the practice putting green. Charlie sees him from a distance and from behind, a thin guy, his shoulders hunched up over the club. A ball rolls out from in front of his feet and into a hole that Charlie can’t see from this angle—the ball seems to disappear.
Charlie is shy, although he wouldn’t call it that. Reserved, he would say, and he waits to introduce himself to the guy in the light blue shirt, waits for his buddy Chet, who is not shy. Charlie has already started his morning badly—he liked to get up and out early, liked to eat his toast and gulp his juice alone, over the sink, and look out the window to the flat lawn and the poplar tree and the neighbors’ houses, all dark and flat as shadows, the sky brightening behind them. But this morning his wife had been up at dawn, asking him about the roof and the sale at Sears, and Jenny was bringing the grandbabies over and did he just finish the last of the juice? Well, could he pick up more? For the kids? And wasn’t it so funny to hear the baby say juice, like yoosh?
It was the only time she talked to him, when he was on his way somewhere. He’d had to put both hands on the sink edge, had to bow his head and invoke his places, one of which was the fifteenth hole, at the back of the course, tucked away behind a patch of trees—where the manicured greens bordered a field of wild grasses that were not wild at all but peaceful, with the mountain in the distance. If he were early enough, he’d see deer deep out, and they would raise their long necks, lingering for a moment, assessing him, before bounding away.
“Are you going to your places?” Carol had asked. When he looked at her, he could feel that his eyes were hard, but he could not help it, and she said, “Well, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry,” with that edge that said, of course, that he should be the one who was sorry.
Out on the course, the fog that has kept them waiting is moving now, a breeze is picking up, whisking it off the land. It looks like there could be a fire burning under the surface of the earth. The stranger in the light blue shirt is looking through the crowd. Chet comes up to Charlie then, red-haired and red-faced, wanting to rehash the school board meeting first thing—how could anyone care more about bleachers than reading, and the contracts would never go through without the 2 percent, and Chet is right, he is so right—why are people so out of their fucking minds? An increasing number of look-alike men pace around, and the stranger in the light blue shirt stands still amidst them, and they have all been waiting too long, too long—Charlie feels the heat rush [End Page 145] up through his chest. He had been told to picture it like a cartoon demon, to make it comical, but, really, it doesn’t have a shape at all, it is a burning, which feels not-at-all funny, so he has to go back to hole fifteen, he’s almost there. He takes a deep breath. The world is not out to get you, he tells himself to tell himself.
The starter is finally moving groups out as Charlie and Chet walk up to the blue-shirt guy. He is fair and young, in his thirties, tender about the eyes; he seems unprotected, vulnerable, as if he sunburns easily. They all shake hands, and Chet is acting kind of funny, patting at his thinning hair, head down, all bashful and deferential, which is not like him at all; he’ll talk bleachers and 2 percent to anybody. They take a few turns putting before they’re called to the tee...