KNIGHT ERRANT
By Dennis Vannatta

I got to the clubhouse a few minutes before 8:00, when I’m officially on the clock.  I like to be on time even though Cornell Lee, who owns and operates Hill and Dale Golf Club, is pretty easy going when  it comes to punctuality, and most everything else.  Way too easy going Shawn, his son, says.   

When I walked through the door, the two of them were already arguing.  “At least let me water the 8th,” Shawn said.  “It’s suffering.  You don’t water that green, you’re going to lose it.”

Cornell peered upward like he was searching the sky for clouds although the only thing above him was the grimy ceiling.  They’d shut down the grill years ago, but the pressed-tin ceiling was still black from grease and smoke.  It was Shawn who pointed it out to me when I started to work here part-time last summer:  “Look at that shit.  It makes me sick, sick.  I got up on a ladder one day and tried to clean it, but it was like trying to clean off dried molasses.”

I didn’t ask him how he knew what cleaning off dried molasses was like.  Shawn is my best friend, but he’s got a short fuse, especially when it comes to the golf club and his dad, who “doesn’t take care of business” and “lets things slide,” Shawn tells me about six times a day.

Cornell finished looking up at the ceiling and said, “I think we might get some rain today.  There’s a thirty percent chance of afternoon heating showers, you know.  Those things can turn into gully washers.  You’d kick yourself to use all that water and then six hours later it rains two inches.  I say we let God pay for it.”

Shawn turned to me and grinned one of those grins that really means, I think I might have to kill this guy.

“You like Cornell’s math, Mason?  He puts more faith in thirty percent than seventy percent.”

Shawn calls his dad and his mom, Jess, by their first names.  I don’t see much of Jess and so I don’t know what she had in mind, but I think Cornell wants to be a friend even more than a dad to his son, wants to be friends with the world, which is an admirable quality, I truly believe that, even if from what I’ve seen of his life the world takes a dump on him every chance it gets.

“Cornell,” Shawn said, “think about it.  If it rains, you get one more day without spending a buck-fifty to water.  But if it doesn’t rain and that green dies—and it was looking purple yesterday afternoon, you saw that yourself—it’s dead forever.  Nothing comes back from the dead.”

“Jesus Christ did,” Cornell said.

From anybody else you’d think that was some smart-alecky comeback, but maybe not Cornell.  He’s not church-going religious—I don’t think any of the Lees ever go to church—but religious like a man who thinks of himself as walking around in God’s creation.  I admire that, but it doesn’t protect him from getting dumped on.  I bothers me that you kind of expect him to get dumped on even more because he’s such a nice guy.  That’s just not right, is it?  Maybe I’ll get it figured out some day.  I’m only seventeen.  I’ve got time.

Anyway, when Cornell said that about Christ coming back from the dead, Shawn just shook his head like it was hopeless.  His dad seemed to relent a little at that.

“OK, Shawn, OK.  Tell you what I’ll do.  Mason,” he said to me, “you’ve got a good head on your shoulders.  I want you to go up there and check out that 8th green.  I’ll let you decide.  If you think it’s in real danger—and I mean real right now danger—then go ahead and water it.  But if you think it can go another day without permanent damage, let’s give those afternoon heating showers a try.”

That didn’t go over too well with Shawn. 

“Thanks a lot for the confidence in me, Cornell.  I get it.  I mean, Mason’s worked here a summer and a half now, and I’ve only been on this course my whole life.  Sure, I get it.”
“I’ve got errands to run this morning, Shawn.  I need you here to man the fort, that’s all.”
“Errands, sure, errands.”
“I need you here.  Stay away from that 8th green,” Cornell said, his voice rising in the closest to a command he could manage.  “Let Mason handle it.  Got it?”
A look passed between them.  I could have added a look of my own to it.

*

Hill and Dale Golf Club was carved out of piney woods, and most fairways and greens are shaded at least part of the day.  The 8th, though—a brutal par 4 with out-of-bounds (Joe Skaggs’ pasture) snug up against the left side of the fairway and state highway 334 just beyond the green another out-of-bounds—is in direct sun from mid-morning until sundown.  Cornell operates the club on a shoestring budget and can get away with not watering most of the course too often unless it gets super dry, but the 8th, you have to keep a close eye on it, especially the green, from May on.

Instead of taking the utility 4-by-4, I hoofed it across the course.  Cornell says you can’t tell the condition of the grass just by looking at it.  You have to feel the turf under your feet.  I felt it.  No crunch.  That’s good, but there’s always a little moisture in the grass early in the day.  Later it might crunch, and crunch isn’t good.

I got to the green but kept going right across it to the little maple tree in the corner where the pasture fence and the fence bordering the highway meet.  It’d be nice if the tree shaded the green even a little bit, but it doesn’t, not in the summer when the afternoon sun casts the tree’s shadow onto the pasture.  But it wasn’t the shade I was after.  No, you can stand behind the tree trunk, and unless someone is really trying to spot you, you won’t be seen from the Bradford Construction Company grounds—office, warehouse, big vehicle shed, and lot—across the road.

I peeked out from behind the trunk.

Mr. Bradford’s Lexus wasn’t parked in the lot, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.  He sometimes drives one of the company vehicles, generally the Ford 150.  The 150 was right there in front of the office.

I looked at my watch.  8:20.  Early, but not too early for what Mr. Bradford gets up to over there.  I looked and looked, like some long-distance Peeping Tom who thought he could stare through the office’s corrugated steel siding.  Pretty disgusting behavior, truthfully—mine, them, everyone involved.  But I’m only human, and it’s not like my spying was going to change anything or hurt anybody.  Shawn already knows, after all.  Heck, he was the one who showed me.

It was a month and a half ago, early June, the school year over with and one of my first days on the job.  Shawn was on the tractor mowing the 8th fairway, and I was cleaning the ball washer and putting fresh water in the barrel on the 9th green.  He stopped and called me over.

He led me to that maple tree, crouched down behind the trunk with me right behind him.  He craned around and looked across the road at Bradford’s.  I did, too.

“They’re in there right now,” he said.
“Who?  What are you talking about?”
“Want to see?  Come on.”

You’d think he would have had us sneak across, hide behind things, but no, we just climbed the fence, crossed the ditch, road, and ditch on the other side and then across the lot until we were almost up to the office building.  At that point, though, he put his finger to his lips, then motioned me to follow him.  We crept on around the building.  There were two square windows in the back.  We edged up to the first one.  Shawn motioned for me to take a look.  I had to stand up on my tiptoes to see.

I’m not going to drag this out.  They were there on a cot, Mr. Bradford still with his collared shirt on but Jess Lee, well, the only thing she had on her was Mr. Bradford.  You can supply the details.  I don’t guess there’s much new in that department, not that I have any experience with it myself.

I let myself down and stood back so Shawn could take a look, but he didn’t.  Obviously he’d seen them before.  Probably that’s something a son doesn’t want to watch more than once.

Why had he had me look, though?  He didn’t say a word, just turned and headed around the building, and in a minute we were back across the road. 

I didn’t know what to say.  “What the heck, Shawn”—that’s the best I could come up with.

“Yeah, what the fuck. . . . Uh oh, I’ve gone and made preacher boy blush again.”

After what we’d just seen, I don’t suppose the F word would make me blush.  But I’ll admit I don’t care for it.  I’m not a preacher’s boy, though.  My dad sells insurance.  Shawn was joking about that, but probably the boy part he really meant.  Well, if choosing not to make the world a fouler place than it has to be—waaa, waaa, mama, mama!—call me a boy.

*

I stood there behind the maple a couple minutes longer but didn’t see any sign of Jess Lee and Mr. Bradford, so I went back to the clubhouse.  I was walking through the door when I realized I hadn’t given a single thought to what that 8th green looked like.

Cornell was gone on his errands.  Shawn was at the counter behind the cash register.  Although it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet, already there were four good ol’ boys playing cards at the table beside the window air conditioner, which did an OK job of cooling them, but you could barely feel it at the counter.  Those guys were there almost every day playing cards.  I don’t think they’d ever stepped on the course itself in their lives.  But that was OK.  There were days when Cornell took in more selling chips and candy bars to them than he did in green fees.  Like I said, he operates under a tight budget.

Shawn was standing there with his arm draped over the register, looking out of sorts.  I don’t think I’d recognize him if he looked any other way.

“Well?” he said.
“Well, what?”

He rolled eyes.  “Well, what in your expert opinion based on your many years of experience is the condition of the 8th green?”

I didn’t quite lie.  “You know, early in the day, it’s not too easy to tell.  It always looks more green now than it will later.  I wouldn’t exactly call it purple, though.”

“Thanks a lot, pal.  Thanks a hell of a lot for supporting me.”         
“Look, Cornell asked me to take a look and give my opinion, and that’s all I’m doing.  I didn’t know I was getting involved in a grudge match.”
“I’m just trying to be a responsible adult.  It’d be nice to have at least one in the family.” 

Before I could think of anything to say to that, he told me to go get to work on the drainage ditch along the 4th fairway, which we’d been working on to clean out for a week now, a hot, miserable job.  He said it like he was giving me an order, which I guess he’s entitled to since he is the boss when his dad’s gone, but it’s not something you like coming from your best friend since kindergarten.  He must have realized that because he said that he’d be out to help me as soon as Cornell got back.  But I worked until noon, my quitting time, and he never showed up.

*

I can’t stay mad at him long, which is a good thing.  Friends seem to be harder to come by the older you get.  At least that’s how it looks at seventeen.  Maybe by the time I’m eighteen I’ll change my mind.  Anything’s possible, I guess.

Anyway, at 7:00 that evening I got a text from him:  “Meet me CC 12 ASAP.”  CC 12 meant the 12th hole at the Blue Pond Country Club.  ASAP meant, you know, ASAP, because if we waited much longer it’d be getting too dark to see the ball.
 
I told dad I was going out for a while, and he said, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” which if I took seriously wouldn’t leave me a lot of leeway because he’s a passive kind of guy, mostly just sits watching television when he’s not working.  I don’t remember if he was that way with Mom when she was still living with us.  That was over a year ago.  I didn’t keep too close an eye on adults then, not like now when I’m closing in on being one myself and need to figure out how it’s done.

            Shawn and I didn’t actually meet on the 12th hole but on a cul-de-sac in Western Acres, where we parked our cars (our dads’ cars, I should say), crossed the ditch behind the houses, climbed through the hole in the fence I suspect Shawn himself had cut sometime before but don’t know for sure, and there we were at the 12th green.  There were a couple of golfers disappearing over the hill on the 13th fairway, but other than that we seemed to have the course to ourselves.
            I don’t own golf clubs myself.  No problem when your best friend’s dad owns a golf club.  He handed me a 9-iron and four balls he fished out of a pocket in his cargo shorts.   He carried a pitching wedge.
            “No putters?” I asked.
            He shrugged.  “I’m just working on my wedge game tonight.”
            Shawn thinks he’s got a future on the pro tour.  Or thinks he would have if he could get more experience playing on a course where the fairways weren’t half dirt and rocks and the greens with no contour and too hard to put spin on the ball like “that piece of shit of Cornell’s.”  So it wasn’t unusual for him to just want to work on his wedges, trying to get that spin.
            This time, though, instead of walking a hundred yards or so down the fairway so we could hit back toward the green, Shawn stopped on the green, took several balls out of his pocket, and dropped them right there.
            “What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like?  Practicing my wedges.”

            Sure enough he took his stance, swung, and lofted the ball down the fairway, a hand-sized divot of grass sailing over to the edge of the green.
            “Shawn!  What the—?”
            “Yeah, that sucked.  Pushed it.  Let’s try that again.”
            He swung again and took another huge divot in that beautiful green, soft as a carpet.
            “Shawn!”
            “You’re right, another push.  Is it my alignment, or do I have some inside-out thing going?  Watch this one and see if you can tell.”
            “Stop, you idiot,” I said, taking a step toward him, but he raised the club and glared at me, and although I don’t think he would have hit me with it, it wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to be wrong about.
            I backed off, and he hit the rest of the balls, but I didn’t watch them, only the divots flopping through the air like wing-shot ducks.
            Without a word, he turned and walked off the green, not toward the balls scattered across the fairway—they were only range balls—but back to the fence.  I followed him through the hole in the fence and on to the cul-de-sac.
            He stood there beside his dad’s car, twirling the wedge like a baton, waiting for me to lay into him, I guess.
            And I wanted to, wanted to call him crazy, ask him if he was proud of himself, but what I said was, “You have so much anger in you, Shawn.  You need to find some way to get over being angry at your mom.”
            “But I’m not angry at my mom, Mason.  I feel sorry for her, but I’m not angry at her.”
            I shook my head.  “Huh uh, that wasn’t feeling sorry for her over there,” I said, nodding back toward the damaged green.  “That was anger, and a lot of it.”
            “I never said I wasn’t angry.  I said I wasn’t mad at Mom.”
            “Then who— ?” I started to ask.  But then I understood who.  I just didn’t understand why.
*
            The next morning I got through watering the greens—yes, Cornell had decided that God needed a little help—at the same time that Shawn finished mowing.  We walked into the clubhouse together.
            Immediately, Cornell came out from behind the counter.
            “About time you two coolies got back.  You must think you’re getting paid by the hour.  Whoops, I forgot, you are.”
            “You must be in a hurry to take off on your errands.  So sorry to delay you,” Shawn said.
            “Yeah, I have to go pick up some fertilizer and stuff at Home Depot.  I’ll take the pickup.  You hold the fort here, number one son, and you, Jubilation T. Cornpone, if you can finally figure out which end of the shovel to use, I think you just might finish off that drainage ditch sometime this decade.”
            “I was afraid you were going to suggest that,” I said.
            “Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” he said with that smile that makes it hard not to smile back even after he’s just told you to work under the July sun for three hours.
            Shawn didn’t smile, though.  He said, “Maybe while you’re out on  your errands, you can figure out what a man’s gotta do.”
            I didn’t stick around to hear what Cornell said to that.  I took off for the toilet, stuck my head into the sink and ran cold water over it, then put my mouth to the tap and drank water until I was bloated.  It’d take at least fifteen minutes to sweat that all out once I started work on the ditch.
            When I came back out, Cornell was gone.  I went over to Shawn at the counter and—lowering my voice because the good ol’ boys were already there playing cards—said, “Hey, why don’t you lighten up on your dad a little.  He’s really a pretty good guy, you know.”
            “That’s what you think, is it?”
            “Look, it’s not like I don’t have any idea what you’re going through.  I mean, my folks have split up.  And I guess it’s a natural thing to blame your dad partly.  Hey, look at my dad.  He’s no ball of fire, I know that.  I think part of the problem was that Mom just got bored with him.  So I get it.  But Cornell is a good guy, and he’s got a tough way to go.”
            He stood there looking at me like he was partly listening and partly thinking about something else.  Then he nodded, to himself like, and I could tell he’d made up his mind about something.
            “Let’s go,” he said, coming out from behind the counter and heading for the door.
            “Carl,” he called over to the card players, “keep an eye on the cash register for a few minutes, OK?”
            “Will do,” one of them said without looking up from his cards.
            I followed him outside.  We got in his dad’s Opal, old enough for a special antique-car license plate, but those cost extra, and if he got one the plate would be worth more than the car, Cornell said.  The guy can make me laugh.
            I didn’t bother asking where we were going.  I figured I’d know when we got there.  And I did.
            Mom lives at the Waverly Apartments on County Line Road.  There are three rows of apartments, each four stories, one in the middle facing the street and the other two flanking it left and right.
            This time of day, most people were at work, so there were only a few cars in the parking lot, one of them Mom’s because she’s a night-shift nurse at Children’s Hospital.  Parked next to it was Cornell’s old Chevy pickup.
            “If you go right up there,” Shawn said, pointing up at the row of apartments on the left, “all the way to the end of the balcony on the top floor, you can look right down into the bedroom in your mom’s apartment.”
            Her apartment is the last one on the third floor of the central row.  Apartments on the end have bedroom windows looking out on the side of the buildings.
            “The thing I don’t get is why people don’t keep their blinds closed.  Do you want to go see?” he said, and then when I didn’t answer went on, “I think it’s a thing you have to see once just to prove it to yourself, so you know what the truth is, so you can go into battle armored.”
            That bit—go into battle armored—was an almost poetic thing to say, and I don’t think of Shawn as a poetry kind of guy.  It didn’t make me any more anxious to go up on that balcony, though. 
            Shawn kept trying to talk me into it—it’d be good for me, toughen me up, stuff like that—but I just kept sitting there.  Finally, he gave up and shook his head like he just couldn’t understand me.  Probably he expected me to go crazy, take a swing at him or go running up to Mom’s apartment and try to kill Cornell.  Sure, I was mad, but I guess I’m my father’s son, a little on the passive side.  And what would have been the point of it, anyway?  What would I have accomplished?
            We went back to the golf club, Shawn to the counter and me to that drainage ditch.
            We’d cleaned out a good forty yards of it and were now almost up to the culvert, where the blockage was the worst, the sludgy crap thick and heavy and stinky.  Uglier than what Jess was doing with Mr. Bradford and Mom with Cornell?  I don’t know.  And maybe it doesn’t matter because as I cut weeds and shoveled, I thought about the situation and I’ve come to this conclusion.  There are things you’ve got a choice whether to look at them and other things that if you want to get paid you’ve got to deal with.  If you can recognize the difference, there’s some armor you can go into battle with.  I’m not quite to that point yet, but I’m working on it, and when I get there, look out.  I’ll be ready to take on the whole fucking world.

About the Author:

Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.

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