By Kevin Griffin
Sand Traps…………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 1
Part I: NorCal………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 2
Part II: DelMarVa…………………………………………………………………………………………….. 161
NorCal II…………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 309
It will come as no surprise to my family and friends (or even casual acquaintances) that a central element of the story I’m about to tell revolves around the unfolding events of a golf match. Some may think this a less than compelling topic in an era of superheroes, theme parks, hyper-violence, and virtual reality, but I assure you that the drama on the links matches any of those more modern diversions.
It happens that at the onset of my story, I was, in fact, negotiating a tricky lie on the challenging uphill par four ninth hole of my home course, Black Oak, deep in the hills of Berkeley, California. Carved out of a hollow intersected by Wildcat Creek in the nineteen twenties, the holes are lined with redwood, eucalyptus, and live oak, and present a classic challenge with elevation changes, narrow fairways, and the small greens favored by the golf course designers of the time.
My ruminations on club selection, always a challenge on the hole and exacerbated by the thick rough where my drive had left me, were interrupted by the chirping of my mobile phone. Though the advent of cell phone technology is a potential scourge to the sylvan quiet of a golf course, the advantages outweigh the dis. While previously I could only approximate the distance to the hole from the fairway, the Global Positioning System application gives me the exact yardage to front, middle, and back of the green. At this moment though, a profile picture of my brother-in-law, Jeremy, was accompanying the chirp, so I swiped as required. Never let it be said that I place my pleasure above the needs of the loved ones.
“Jeremy!” I exclaimed. “Good to hear from you.”
“Black Oak?” he asked.
“That uphill monster.”
Since he had summed up the situation perfectly, I felt no response was necessary.
“Arthur, I need your help.”
I appreciated Jeremy’s tendency to get to the point—especially when I was facing a difficult approach shot.
“I’m at your service.”
“It’s the Hueys.”
I drew in a breath. This was, indeed, serious.
“The club reinstated them.”
The Hueys, a rather portly father and son, had been expelled from Jeremy’s Delaware golf club after an over-the-top celebration following their victory over us in the club championship the previous summer. Their arrival on the scene the previous spring with their bulldozer-happy development company had already been distressing enough to the Atlantic coastal community where Jeremy had a summer house, as they pushed the boundaries of local, state, and federal environmental regulations.
“How could they–”
“Money talks,” he said.
“A new practice green and chipping area.”
“Well, that’s something,” I said. “The place did need a little sprucing up.”
Just then my phone indicated that I was receiving another call. I looked over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t holding anyone up on the hole.
“Jeremy can you hold?”
It was Emily Ko, the most efficient employee in my office, and the only one who could arouse my guilt over being on the course.
“Are you coming back in today?” she asked.
“I wasn’t planning to,” I said, trying to maintain a confident, guilt-free tone. “Anything I should know about?”
“No,” she said. “I mean, it’s probably nothing, but…”
“I don’t want to jump to…”
“Really, it’s nothing,” she said. “We can talk tomorrow.”
Just the sort of conversation to make a boss uncomfortable. Having previously expressed my concern to her that she tended to panic, Emily was presumably trying not to panic, but that seemed to leave her confused as to how to deal with whatever situation she was dealing with.
I switched back to Jeremy.
“We’ll need to play our best this year,” said Jeremy.
“Who else is going to help me beat those fat—“
“Jeremy!” I interrupted. “We don’t use terms like ‘fat’ anymore in California.”
Although Jeremy lived in the nation’s capital he sometimes lacked a certain sensitivity that we in the Bay Area have cultivated–perhaps to a fault.
“Well, what would you call them?”
“I believe that overweight is acceptable, though I will have to check with the authorities.”
“How is Martha, by the way?”
“Let’s not get diverted here,” I said. “I thought we agreed that we weren’t going to subject ourselves to the stress of the club championship again.”
“That was before this news.”
“Let me think about it,” I sighed. “I’m facing a hundred fifty yards uphill, out of six inches of rough.”
Grasping the severity of the situation as I knew he would, Jeremy agreed to discuss this further when I wasn’t in such perilous straits. He probably knew me well enough to guess that I wouldn’t need much persuading to re-engage the Hueys. And so I went back to the matter at hand.
In case you’re wondering, though my six iron fell short of the green, I did manage to chip it close and get in for par. Small comfort with the gathering Huey storm.
The only interruption to the back nine was a text from Martha informing me that our daughter would not be joining us for dinner. Again.
* * *
I’ve learned to approach the beloved carefully when proposing travel plans, even when it involves visiting her dear and only sister. Some unknown event from her past may have traumatized her, or perhaps one or two of my own ideas over the years, which she has characterized as hare-brained, have set her against anything I suggest—one weekend at a Comfort Inn in Lodi comes to mind. And so, as I decamped from the course I scanned the music on my phone for something in the contemplative genre. As I’d been infatuated with surf music of late, The Ventures “Walk, Don’t Run” had to do the job.
Coming down the steep hill into Berkeley proper, the vast panorama of the Bay lay at my feet. The towers of downtown San Francisco sparkled in the clear light of the June evening, while the Golden Gate seemed to be holding back the wall of fog that lay just off the coast. By midnight it would blanket the entire basin, giving us cool sleeping weather through the night.
Riding my brakes, I reflected on strategy to the twangy surf soundtrack. There was, of course, the direct approach, but that left the yes or no answer likely with no options. You can try something vague like, “Where shall we go this summer?” but that might leave too many options. The best approach was to make her think it was her idea. Now, how to do that? As I got closer to home I batted various thoughts around, finally arriving at a strategy that I was sure would do the trick.
“I told you,” she called out as I removed my key from the door. “You’re not allowed to come home from golf in a bad mood. It’s golf. You’re playing for fun!”
How she detected my despair from the kitchen I’ll never know, but apparently she has some sort of sonar that unfailingly calculates my score by the fall of my footsteps outside. (I’m afraid I failed to mention to you the debacle of my back nine. Despite my heroic up and down on the ninth, the Huey news had broken my concentration causing my score to skyrocket. The exact number will remain a secret shared only with the USGA handicapping app, another of the handy features of my smart phone.)
“Going!” At that moment the younger beloved burst in and through the kitchen, kissing me briefly on the cheek. “Love you guys!” The rattle of keys as she searched the bowl, and the door slammed.
“Where’s she going?” I asked.
“Where else?” said the beloved.
Now seventeen, my young beloved—her name is Natalie—rarely appears for the family repast as in days past. The allure of the boyfriend has overridden any familial attractions, leaving the beloved and myself to stare at each other over the dinner table and consider the childless future that awaits us. Odd to consider the long held belief of my youth that a childfull life would intrude on my then future, if you follow me.
Thrown off my game by this interruption, I gathered myself to execute my plan. Poking around in the cabinet to find some post-round carbohydrates, I casually said over my shoulder, “She spends an awful lot of time over at his house.”
“Better than having them over here all time,” said the beloved as she tossed chopped kale into the iron skillet, quickly stirring and then tilting the pan over the soup pot. The antique Wedgewood stove was Martha’s favorite thing in a kitchen that a realtor would call “charming,” but might more accurately be described as “needing a remodel.” Indeed, our “classic Thousands Oaks bungalow,” built around the same time as the Black Oak Golf Course would benefit from a few sprucings here and there, but one doesn’t engage in home upgrades with a child a year away from college. “I’m just as happy to have the place to ourselves.”
“Hmm,” I reflected, having scrounged up a Wheat Thin. “But I was thinking, you know, that we should get her away for a couple weeks this summer.”
As she seasoned the pot, she didn’t respond, so I proceeded with my sly manipulation.
“Don’t you think she should take a break from him?”
She sipped the broth from her wooden spoon and added salt. Was she listening?
“It would be nice to go to Hawaii again, but we can’t really afford it this year.”
Brushing past me, she opened the fridge and extracted a bag of lettuce.
“We really should try to save some money.”
Nothing. Just tossing the salad. She wasn’t taking the bait. Afraid that I was getting nowhere, or worse, that her silence meant she was preparing a rejection, I lost patience and blurted out, “Maybe spend some time at the beach with your sister.”
“Oh, yes, I meant to tell you. Connie called today. We’re going out when Natalie’s done with school. Jeremy needs you for some kind of golf thing. Anyway, I already booked the tickets.”
When your tee shot hooks into a tree and bounces back to the middle of the fairway, you shouldn’t be concerned with your failure of execution, but rather take joy in your good fortune. And so I did in this situation.
“Why don’t you set the table,” she said. “Dinner’s almost ready.”
I took flatware and napkins out of the drawer. When we moved in fifteen years ago, the painters looked skeptically at the colors Martha had picked out, Southwest themed shades called “Sonora Red” and “Santa Fe Gold” for the adjoining living and dining rooms. Over the years the look had gone from surprising, to hip, and now might have become a cliché. Nonetheless, the colors still leant a warmth to the wainscotted rooms.
As we sipped our soup and crunched our salad, I chose to move on to more serious topics.
“Martha, dear,” I said, carefully avoiding the “my.” This endearment, which had once seemed charming—the Beatles always being such a reliable source of joy–was spoiled when she discovered that McCartney had been writing about his dog. What sort of songwriter composes paeans to a dog? But I suppose a Beatle can write about whatever he wants. We all still wind up humming it. “I really do think Natalie should have some time away from the boyfriend, don’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
This response, though seemingly innocuous, was nonetheless remarkable, as Martha rarely didn’t know.
“Going into her senior year,” I said, “don’t you think she should play the field a bit more—or whatever you call it now? And God forbid they get the idea of going to the same college…”
Now I became seriously concerned. Don’t knowing and perhapsing could only mean she had something else entirely in mind. And when she had something else entirely in mind, there was little chance for discussion. The only remaining question was whether her something else was on the topic of Natalie and whatshisname or something altogether different.
Martha’s game wasn’t golf but tennis, and clearly the ball was in her court.
“Connie’s depressed,” she said as she served herself more salad.
“What? Connie? Why?” I broke off a piece of baguette and slathered it with butter.
“You can’t tell anyone.” She sipped at her soup.
“I won’t,” I mumbled through my bread.
“You will. You always do.”
“What do you mean?” The soup was hot, and I sucked it off my spoon.
“Blow on it.”
“Whenever I tell you something you spill it.”
“Well, I won’t this time.”
“You have to promise.”
“The thing is you’ll forget,” she said.
She had me there. I had no comeback. This is why I’m no good at tennis. I need time to stand over the ball, get centered, settle my body, and swing. I’m no good at reacting, at volleying. I tried to cool my soup enough to drink it without slurping. I succeeded enough that I only got the cold stare, without the additional chastisement.
“You’ll get excited,” she said. “And it will come out.”
“So what is it?”
“You promise you won’t say anything?”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Jesus, Martha!” I frowned and leaned back from the table.
“Okay,” she looked down. “It’s Jeremy.”
“What?” I asked. “What about Jeremy? The Huey match?”
“No, it’s something else. That’s why I have to go see her.”
“I’m not really sure. She didn’t want to go into it over the phone.”
“Well, that makes sense. You have to see her but you don’t know why.”
“Oh, Arty. You know how they are.”
“What do you mean? Connie’s always so cheery.”
“That’s just what you see.”
“Well, how am I supposed to know she’s not happy if she goes around smiling all the time?”
“Do the dishes. I cooked.” She got up and tossed her napkin on the table. “I’m going to grade some papers.”
* * *
Having completed the kitchen duties, checked email and other forms of potential communication, and determined that the world was no longer in need of my attention today, I went to the basement and settled in to watch the replay of the final round of the Pensacola Open. At least, that’s what I called it. Now sponsored by a “B2B” conglomerate, whatever that is, whose work involved “Helping you scale your business across the enterprise,” whatever that meant, the whole tournament appeared to be one big marketing opportunity. When the announcers pointed out that one of the golfers had shortened his pants to show his sponsor’s logo on his socks, I nearly switched to a movie.
But the battle between the young phenom, Cody Fitch, and the grizzled pro, Paul Goodson had my interest. Gradually I sank back in the couch, lulled by the soporific voices of the golf announcers, the occasional thwack of a long iron, and the cheers of the Floridians strolling the links. Only the occasional bellow of “Get in the hole!” interrupted this perfect meditation. Fitch was jarring unimaginably long putts while Goodson performed his usual magic out of what for anyone else would have been unplayable predicaments that his wayward drives got him into. This was the stuff.
The sound of the door slamming upstairs snapped me out of my deepening languor. It could only mean one thing: the young beloved had returned early. And when she returned early it could only mean one thing: trouble in boyfriend paradise.
She appeared on the stairs.
“Golf?!” she shouted quite unnecessarily. There it was on the large flat screen for all to see. I thought I had taught her to avoid stating the obvious, but apparently the lessons hadn’t sunk in. “We’re not watching that.”
In a flash she’d grabbed the remote from my hand and was scanning the saved programs. I could still hear the golfing, but the onscreen guide obscured the picture.
“Wait just a minute,” I lunged at the device, but her hand-eye coordination, honed over years of middle and high school basketball was too good. She switched hands and continued her search. “Fitch and Goodson are battling it out.”
“Thrilling,” she said, her voice slathered in sarcasm.
She found what she wanted, and soon I was treated to the latest episode of “Buy My House!” which featured the trials of people trying to unload their underwater mortgages from the housing bubble.
While Natalie laughed at the foolishness of the Nevada family who had bought a three-bedroom ranch house in the Las Vegas exurbs at the height of the bubble, I quickly forgot the golf tournament and became concerned about these real estate novices, and particularly their teenage daughter and her plans for medical school which looked to be shattered.
“Don’t worry,” said Nat.
“But they’re six-figures in the red and their poor kid is going to wind up working at McDonalds.”
She laughed again, which I felt sure reflected a cold-heartedness. What kind of child had I raised?
Natalie had wisely recorded the show, so we were able to skip through the seven commercials and get back to the action. Now the plot turned, starting with the father’s DIY efforts at upgrading, adding a family room in the basement and redoing the kitchen. (Here my own guilt at my handyman failings briefly arose, but soon passed, as I was swept up in the drama.)
With the help of a government program the family held onto the house until prices began to slowly rise again, my hopes climbing with them. Then came the twist: a new center for treating gambling addicts made an offer on the house, saving the family from ruin. Shortly after, the daughter was accepted into UNLV with a full ride. Surely a parable for our times.
Now I realized that my daughter’s light-hearted response to the unfolding drama reflected not a mean streak, but her adept understanding of the narrative form of the show. Whatever problems might arise, the hour must always end on a high note. One wondered how many potential episodes had been scrapped when reality interfered with “reality.”
Though we were clearly being manipulated, despite my best efforts I had been entertained. Better still, though, was my daughter’s attachment to my side as she leaned her head on my shoulder. Now, as she went back to the DVR to find the next episode, she told her tale of woe. When she showed up at Jordan’s house for their date—I’d thought his name was Jason—he was heading out with some friends. In typical teenage fashion he’d changed his mind about going to the movies with her without bothering to notify her of the alteration in plans.
This seemed like the perfect time to inform her of the holiday trip to her aunt and uncle’s.
“Well, when school ends you can get away from him for a while,” I said.
“What?” She sat up and looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“We’re going to Delaware to the beach house.”
“We can’t do that!” she screeched. “Jordan’s in a baseball tournament in LA and he invited me. His parents already said I could come!”
“Well you can’t.”
“That’s not fair!” She was on her feet now waving the remote. “I’m going with Jordan.”
“Natalie, we’re all going to Connie and Jeremy’s. It’s settled.”
“Nooo! I won’t go!
“You have to.”
The remote control flew across the room, knocking the Wii controller off the top of the TV. She ran back up the steps.
“You’re ruining my life!” And her bedroom door slammed.
A moment later Martha poked her head in the room.
“What was that?”
“She doesn’t want to go to the beach.”
“You should have let me handle it.”
“We were having a nice time on the couch, and…” Still a bit dazed, I got down on my knees to extract the remote from behind the TV. I discovered it coated in dust. “She just had a fight with Justin—“
“Right. So I thought it would be a good time to tell her we were going away.” I wiped the remote on my pants and exited the reality show. Goodson was being interviewed at the end of his round.
Shaking her head in disgust, she went back upstairs. I heard her softly tapping on Natalie’s door.
“Honey, can I come in?”
The spell of golf was spoiled, so I switched to Sports Center and watched highlights of games I cared nothing about.
A few minutes later Martha came back downstairs.
“You calmed her down?” I asked.
“This isn’t really about the broken date,” she said, taking the remote and muting Sports Center. She put a hand on my thigh. “I think she’s starting to feel more pressure about college.”
We’d already met with a private college counselor as well as taken a spring break trip to Southern California to visit some schools. Natalie’s grades were great, but she wanted to get her test scores up, so she was getting tutored in math and science. Martha could have helped with the essay writing, but she said it was best to let someone else do it because Mom-as-tutor was too fraught. I deferred to her on all such decisions. She had a friend who had published a couple novels and gave workshops for teens, and she had agreed to take Natalie on at a friend discount. All in all, the entire process was something like preparing her to climb Mount Everest. And apparently Martha and I were the Sherpas.
When I thought back to my own college applications, to two schools, this all seemed a bit much. But the beloved said this was how it was done now. Natalie had already picked out ten schools she was going to apply to, and I understood there might be more. Soon I would be needing more oxygen.
Now Martha started clicking through the channels. Baseball, the A’s against the Tigers; that would be fine. No, she clicked on. Local sports roundup. Nope, on she went. Nature show, wolves in Yellowstone. Okay—oops, not that either. Talking head on PBS. She stopped.
“The thing is, the whole Jordan issue is complicating things,” she said. “They’re trying to coordinate their applications.”
“They want to go to the same school.”
“What?! No!” I sat up. “This is too important a decision, and anyway, it’s a year away. They probably won’t even be speaking by then.”
“Shhh,” said Martha, looking up the steps. “She’ll hear you.”
“I don’t care if she–“
“Please, just stay out of it for now. The best thing we can do is just let it play out.”
“Oh, God,” I fell back on the couch.
“When we’re back East Walker can take her to Georgetown for a tour,” she said. Walker was Connie and Jeremy’s son. “When she sees some of her options, she might change her mind about California.”
“What’s wrong with California?”
She gave me her “You’re missing the point look” and handed me the remote.
“Here,” she said, standing up. “I just wanted to keep you in the loop. Just don’t say anything to her, okay?”
“I mean it,” she said.
“I know, I know. Okay.”
She went upstairs, and I clicked back to the A’s, my local favorite. They were up by a run in the bottom of the eighth at home, but they had a habit this year of blowing leads. The back end of their bullpen was weak.
As the game moved at its peaceful rhythm, I started thinking about Jeremy. Why did he really want me out there? Was it just for the Huey tournament or was something else going on, as Martha had implied? Or maybe he hadn’t thought Connie would want to have us out for something so trivial (by her standards), and had made up or exaggerated some crisis to get her to go along with his plan.
While I knew that, like me, Jeremy was devoted to his golf game, and indeed, the club championship held some importance in his worldview, the phone call in the middle of the day and then the obvious effort of Connie to recruit Martha brought a note of urgency to the invitation, which would ordinarily just be handled with a casual email. My fine-tuned intuition told me something else was going on.
Well, I supposed it would all be revealed, and in the meantime I needed to sharpen my short game.
I went to the office a little early the next day—not that I felt guilty for playing golf the day before, but one does want to appear bosslike from time to time. As expected, what the radio weather person called “June gloom” had fogged in the East Bay. A tourist might think we were in for a chilly day. But we locals knew it would be gone by noon.
Our brick building in West Berkeley used to be a steel fabrication facility, and now houses an organic tea company and a custom leather purse shop on the first floor, and my company, Bell Environmental Design, Inc. on the second. Seeing my last name on the small brass plaque at the entrance always feels a bit odd. How did I wind up here?
In my so-called day, no such pretentious title as “environmental engineer” would have passed our lips. They called us tree huggers and even eco-fascists, but we just thought we were doing the right thing. Well, not exactly. Our pretension was that we were saving the world—unpretentiously.
Santa Cruz was the perfect place to pursue such pursuits, and they even gave me a degree for doing it. Afterward I joined a group that was doing “actions” aimed at disrupting old growth logging. But after a few arrests, nights in jail, and days in court, I realized I wasn’t cut out for the outlaw life and took a job staring at trees from a firewatcher’s shack in the Sierra. That was so boring that going back to school sounded downright exciting. Berkeley’s environmental program was taking anyone in those days, so I pounded the books, flattered the professors, and tormented the undergrads as a TA for another half dozen years, somehow excreting a thesis whose title I’ve forgotten, but which I believe included the words “biogenic,” “phenological,” and “plasmids,” none of whose definitions I can recall today.
Then it was on to the un-American world of non-profits. As the 90’s unfolded and the Bay Area became the profit center of the world, I went on merrily non-profiting. But all things must come to an end, as the corporations we’d been fighting all those years found, much to their surprise, that they too needed an environment. Now I couldn’t seem to avoid profiting, which pleased my wife and daughter no end. Having set up my own firm, I was showing these behemoths how not to destroy everything they touched, an apparently huge challenge for them which fills my days. They call it “consulting.”
There are those who would pass judgment on me, saying you shouldn’t even talk to these environmental despoilers, much less consult with them. But I noticed over the years that no one was listening to me as I threw my ceases at their corporate headquarters and my desists at their toxic dump sites. Now at least they are listening. Of course, I’m not telling them the whole truth because if I did they would all either become suicidally depressed or go off and join the survivalists in Montana. I vacillate between those two on a daily basis myself.
You see, my computer models show life on earth becoming extinct by 2143. Or 44, depending.
Some of my EE friends pass a more personal judgment, claiming that my hobby-of-choice is itself a despoiler. According to them, instead of golf I should be joining their Ultimate Frisbee league or riding my bicycle to the top of Mt. Diablo. In fact, I’ve done pro bono work for many of my local munis, helping them save water, avoid pesticides, and generally make nice with Mother Nature, which is why I haven’t paid for a round in a decade. With the earth increasingly just a playground for humans, golf courses can actually function as healthy, diverse, and self-contained nature preserves of a sort. At least that’s what I like to tell myself, and anyone else who will listen.
I suppose I don’t work as hard as some people think a business owner should. But even in our startup period when I would put in twelve-hour days, I found that the time I spent most mornings fixing the mistakes I’d made the night before resulted in a net loss. I finally realized I could get just as much done in a forty-hour week as in a sixty-hour one. I’m also not a control freak, which is why I’ve hired young people who are usually smarter than I; their intelligence doesn’t threaten me because I know I know things they won’t know until they’re my age. I try to tell them to work less, but they rarely listen, still under the illusion that they can power through long days with Red Bull. My role today involves less detail and more so-called “strategic planning,” which suits me, because over the years I’ve become less interested in the technical details of our work, and more engaged in creative thinking and guiding the ship.
When I slid my key card through the lock and came into the office, a few early arrivers nodded their greetings. The open-plan space allows for ease of communication, or so says the organizational planning firm that suggested the layout. So far, they seem to have a point. Loads of communication happens in this office. I’m just not sure it’s about work. Other than Roger, the IT guy, I’m the only one with a separate office, and even that is glass-enclosed, so the privacy is only auditory, not visual. In fact, with our bare wood floors and brick walls, we’ve had to put in sound baffles around the open space to keep the roar dull, otherwise the room starts to echo like a BART station.
We moved here about five years ago when the company outgrew its original office near downtown. While the space itself has the sleek, modern feel of a Bay Area startup, the work surfaces are all recycled desks, dinner tables, side tables, and butcher block tables that Emily and I picked out from Waste Not, the huge recycling and reuse facility originally setup to limit landfill in Berkeley. So each Bell employee has a unique work surface, some elegant Victorian pieces with carved legs and lion’s feet, others utilitarian carpenter’s benches. There’s even one wastewater specialist who sits at a rolltop desk. Along the back wall a thirty-foot garment spreading table provides a place for stacks of documents that need to be shared and distributed across the company. And that’s where people sit during all-staff meetings, while I stand at an old lectern I use somewhat playfully on those weekly occasions.
Having saved money on the desks, we splurged on Aeron chairs. With each surface topped by the same kinds of computers, papers, coffee mugs and personal knick-knacks, the effect is mixed, both homey and businesslike.
As I came through the maze of desks and chairs, Caroline, our new administrative assistant greeted me anxiously.
A young hipster who did her best to act the admin part, today she was wearing leopard skin tights with a red, calico dress, her hair bleached platinum with a green streak.
“Can I get you anything, Mr. Bell?” she asked, rising from her desk, an old elementary school model with a flip top. I’d given up telling her to call me Art.
“No, I’m fine,” I said. “Any messages?”
“Nothing, sir.” This last was over the line.
“’Sir’?” I said. Caroline shrank under my gaze. “Really, Caroline, you don’t have to address me as ‘Mister’ or ‘sir’. Just ‘Art,’ okay?”
“Okay,” she mumbled, but I could see she wasn’t comfortable with the idea.
The very need for a secretary is questionable these days, since anyone who wants to reach me can easily send an email, and half the time my calls come on my mobile instead of the landline, even here at the office.
On my desk—an old workbench dragged out of someone’s basement, sturdy as a girder, polished and refinished–was an RFP from a tech company that wanted to up-green their Emeryville offices; an Environmental Impact Report on the City of Sausalito’s plan to dredge their marina; and Emily’s write up for a new set of pollution safeguards to be implemented by an oil refinery in the North Bay. Before turning my attention to these concerns, I pulled out my scorecard from yesterday’s round. I needed to review what went wrong on the back nine. Looking at this only reminded me of Jeremy’s call, and soon I was just staring out the window at the foggy morning worrying.
Should I call him? If Connie had wanted me to talk to him, she would have told Martha, since this is how communication happens in our family, a sort of fire brigade passing buckets of information down the line. I checked the time. It was almost noon in D.C., and he was most certainly at work, busy meeting authors and editors and marketers, all the occupations that occupy a publisher, so he probably wouldn’t have time to talk anyway. Jeremy’s not the type to discuss his problems, more the stiff-upper-lip-type or maybe just the none-of-your–business-type. But even as I gave myself all these justifications not to call, I knew that the real reason was that I’m the don’t-want-to-get-involved type.
I guess my relationship with my brother-in-law is not typical, that is, we are actually friends—more, perhaps. It starts with “brother,” since neither of us has one. He’s an only child and I just have a much older sister, Peggy, married to a hedge fund manager in Newport Beach—not really my crowd. When we met, we found we had a lot in common, not just golf. We’d both “come in from the cold,” he from a cult-like Hindu group in upstate New York and I from eco-land. After his supposedly celibate guru had been caught screwing all his female acolytes and embezzling temple funds, he got lured back to the family publishing business. When I got tired of the monotony of guarding Sierra forests, mine supported me going back to school. This gives each of us a sense of being outsiders in our own lives. We’d seen, as Joni Mitchell put it, “both sides,” and we could never totally buy into the conventional world, even if we had ultimately walked away from the unconventional one.
Besides that, being married to sisters, presumably we were attracted to the same kind of women. Whatever it is, like real brothers we don’t talk that much, but when we do, there’s a lot we don’t need to say.
The thing is, I figured the coming club championship might be bringing up some bad memories. We’d won it three straight years before the Hueys joined the club and dethroned us last year. Their recent arrival on the shores of Delaware was followed by rumors that they were running from the after-effects of an environmental debacle in their native New Jersey caused by their most recent coastal condo development in Ventnor. Word was that the EPA as well as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection were still investigating them for multiple potential violations of state and federal environmental regulations.
To be defeated on his home course by these quasi-criminals was bad enough. But insult had been added to the injury of the loss, which was largely due to Jeremy’s poor play on the back nine, with the Hueys’ grand slam of offenses during their celebration: Huey Sr. drinking champagne out of a shoe belonging to the wife of the club president; father and son throwing said president into the pond by the eighteenth green; and finally, Jr.—whose odd nickname I can’t immediately recall–urinating in the pond, vomiting on the patio, and ultimately passing out in a sand trap with his arms wrapped lovingly around the club trophy.
After we drove away from this scene of depravity, stunned and reeking of sprayed champagne, we never spoke of Huey or our loss again until his call to me the day before.
As I ruminated on these unpleasantries, I saw Emily come into the office. Tall and slender, with her blue-black hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looked younger than her thirty-two years. When she saw me she dropped her bag at her desk and walked toward my enclosure. I waved her in.
She unraveled a long red scarf she’d been wearing to ward off the morning chill, but left on the long cream-colored cardigan she wore over a black and white polka dot top and black Capri-style pants.
“I didn’t expect to see you so early,” she said.
Not sure if this was meant as an insult or just an observation, I ignored it.
“Is there some issue with Noboco?” This was the oil company we were consulting for.
“It’s just,” she pointed at a chair. “May I?”
She sat upright with hands in her lap fiddling with the scarf.
“I’m running into problems dealing with them.” I waited for her to say more, but she seemed to be hesitating. “I think it might be,” she looked away. “I don’t like to always jump to conclusions, but…”
“Let me guess,” I said. “Tom Harrison is patronizing you.”
“Do they employ any women or people of color?”
When I hired Emily she embarrassed me by pointing out how white and male Bell Environmental Design was. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of that reality, but I’d never known how to correct it. As one of the first Asian-American women in their program, Emily had called out the UC Berkeley Environmental Engineering Department on the same issue when she was a grad student and helped them set up a minority recruitment program. After I hired her she helped me do the same at Bell, starting an internship outreach program, and we now had one of the most diverse staffs of any environmental engineering firm in the country. That didn’t just change the color of the company; I found it brought a broader perspective to many of the issues we faced. Situations that I would previously have seen only through the lens of the environment, now might take on a human rights element as when we demonstrated to the City of San Jose that all their waste sites bordered neighborhoods of low-income people of color. That report, after being picked up by the press, had triggered a lawsuit that was working its way through the state courts and could wind up being decided on the federal level. It just goes to show how everything is connected.
“Diversity is not their middle name,” I said. “That’s for sure.”
“Yeah, there’s this sort of ‘When’s the real engineer coming?’ attitude.”
“So, what do you want me to do? I mean, if I call them to complain, doesn’t that just seem like the white man is coming to the rescue?”
“Exactly,” she said. “You’re catching on. I guess I just wanted you to know that I might be about to piss some people off over there.”
“Piss away,” I said.
She gave me a funny look.
“Sorry. That didn’t sound right,” I said.
Outside I saw Trevor, one of our engineers, approach my office, then back off when he saw Emily with me.
“Just keep pushing back with them,” I said. “It’s all you can do. But of course, if they do or say anything actionable let me know and we’ll get the lawyers on it. I love suing oil companies. It makes me feel young.”
“Okay,” she got up to leave. She turned to me as she got to the door. “One other thing.”
“Something’s going on with Trevor,” she said. “I don’t know what it is, but something.”
“So I surmised,” I said, pointing over her shoulder.
She turned and saw him staring at us.
“Oh,” she said, and went out the door, holding it open for Trevor to enter.
Emily’s sensitivity, the same sensitivity that caused her to panic about relatively minor problems, made her a good person to keep the pulse of the office. And I liked her reading that pulse for me. But Trevor didn’t appreciate it.
“Boss?” he said when he came through the door. One of the smart, hardworking people who made Bell Environmental Design run so smoothly, Trevor commanded respect in the office, maybe because of his broad experience or maybe just because of his English accent. Short with longish hair, he reminded me of one of the Rolling Stones—not Mick or Keith, but the old bass player, Bill Whatshisname. Dressed as usual in black, the pointy Italian boots only reinforced the image.
There was something arrogant about him, or again maybe it was just the accent. Calling me “boss” was a way of teasing me. I’d tried repeatedly to get them all to call me by my first name, but to no avail. “I think you should look at this I.S.”
That would be “Initial Study,” one of the key documents that Bell E. D. produces. Acronyms are the lifeblood of consultants, protecting our jargon-permeated turf and proving our vast knowledge of our subject, so vast as to make actual words an inefficient means of communication.
I’d often thought with his lean physique that Trevor had a good build for a golfer, but like so many of the others in my office, he’d evaded my efforts to recruit him to the game, claiming a bad back that he treated with regular yoga classes. Of course, I have no objections to yoga—I’ve used it myself—especially considering the need for flexibility in getting a full backswing, but surely standing in awkward postures for long periods of time can’t possibly bring the gratification of a four iron properly struck and soaring through a bright blue sky towards the flagstick.
He led me to his desk, a utilitarian butcher block that might have actually been used by a butcher. The dark stains had the look of dried blood. The broad surface held two giant computer monitors filled with graphs, charts, and mathematical calculations. The laptop on the side, I noted, was displaying a dating site. I knew he was single, so I didn’t begrudge him keeping an eye out, even if it was on company time. What was the point in policing people’s use of the Internet at work, especially since they were probably doing work at home on their own time?
He sat down while I watched over his shoulder.
“This is Brian’s IS for the Dilworth project.” The Dilworth Hotel Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dilworth Development Corporation Inc., hoped the Initial Study would mitigate the necessity of a full-blown EIR, the Environmental Impact Report. The IS is like mini-golf to the EIR’s eighteen holes. With a good IS, we could produce an ND, Negative Declaration, potentially saving them millions. Trevor stood over his desk, clicking his mouse. “It’s all good up to here.”
I followed the path he was taking me through the data—to a point. In the years since my PhD, not only had the technology for analyzing data become sophisticated to the point of our needing tech specialists to assist our tech specialists, but even the elements of that data had expanded as the data collecting technology in the field had also been refined. Jobs and responsibilities became specialized to the extent that most of Bell’s employees needed to spend so much time perfecting their own expertise that they hardly knew what the others were doing. With this increasing specialization, older engineers such as myself had to either spend a lot of time studying (not something I wanted to do), or else move into management where instead of being masters of detailed information, they were sources of knowledge and wisdom. At least that’s what I hoped I was.
“Here, though,” said Trevor, clicking and expanding a text file. “Look at this.” He moved the text to the right side of the screen then pulled up a graph on the other side. “Here’s the raw data on the right, and on the left is Brian’s charting.”
I looked warily at Trevor. This was one reason I was skeptical of the open plan office. I didn’t like doing this in public. Brian was not far away, and if it hadn’t been for the generally noisy atmosphere, might even have heard what we were saying.
I glanced over to see him wearing earbuds, absorbed in his work. Brian was good looking, blond and muscular, and wore the tight athletic t-shirts to prove it. His somewhat conventional desk, steel legs and drawers and blond surface, was setup so that he could keep an upright posture as he typed. The advent of the gym and modern perceptions about men’s bodies meant that even someone who was, essentially, a nerd, someone who’d spent his life in front of a computer, felt the need, or I suppose the desire, to accumulate muscles that in earlier times would only have been seen on an Olympic decathlon champion. Never having had either need or desire, my own body suffered in comparison. In any case, even if I’d had the need or desire, my aversion to the smells, sounds, and general enthusiasm found in gyms would have forestalled my body-building ambitions.
I asked Trevor to move over, pulled up another chair, and plunged into the material for myself.
I saw Emily looking quizzically at us from her desk, but thought it best to ignore her right now. This was just the sort of problem that would send her into panic mode. I’d call on her when I needed her.
It took me some time to follow the through-line of the material. Brian had collected massive data, processed it, divided it into numerous sub-categories, then created a report that justified his conclusion that no further study was necessary. He was a good writer and a solid analyst, and his conclusions looked unassailable based on the data he presented. Only if you found this one text note he’d left out on the effects of the project on groundwater did it all fall apart. Dilworth’s luxury hotel, the anchor for a multi-use development project in Hayward could be set back years or even canceled. No one wanted that, not Dilworth, not the City of Hayward, and not the County of Alameda. Everyone wanted the business, the new housing, and the jobs that the project promised.
“Wasn’t this our original concern?” I asked. “The intrusion of sea water from the Bay?”
“Yes,” said Trevor. “We always thought that with the depth they had to drill to anchor a foundation for something this high there’d be the potential for destructive salinization of the groundwater. The thing is, Hayward doesn’t use that water right now. They depend on SFPUC.” San Francisco’s source in Yosemite provided much of the Bay Area with its drinking water, an issue Northern California had fought about almost since white people arrived.
“They’re not using any of their own wells?”
“Hetch Hetchy, like everybody else.” This was the valley in Yosemite that had been turned into a reservoir. In the good old days, some of my compatriots in the environmental movement had even talked about blowing up the dam there. “Free Hetch Hetchy” would have been a hashtag, had there been hashtags at the time. Bumper stickers served the same purpose.
“So Dilworth can make the argument that a little salinization of the groundwater doesn’t matter since they’re not using those wells.”
“You think the EPA is going to buy that argument?”
“I doubt it. But if they don’t know about it, and it doesn’t cause any immediate concerns, by the time anyone starts to worry about Hayward groundwater, the project would be complete. And nobody’s going to make them tear down a hotel complex just to clean up some inactive wells.”
“Why were you looking at this?” I asked as I clicked through the report. Trevor was Brian’s supervisor, but ordinarily he’d only be reviewing the final report, not the raw data.
“I always double check my staff’s data. Of course, I don’t tell them I do that.”
I spun around in the chair. “What do you think?”
Trevor had leaned back on the edge of the thick desk. “It’s hard to tell. These things happen,” he said with an air of skepticism.
“Not in this office.”
“It’s a new world, boss.”
Trevor and I both believed that Brian was too smart to make a mistake on a project like this. Not that he was a genius—those folks go to my competitors in San Francisco and Silicon Valley—but he was top of his class at UC Davis and published in a major EE journal. Bell E. D. tends to snag a certain type that wants to live in Berkeley—not that they were all tie-dyed stoners, but they did tend to be a tad less ambitious, a tad less greedy, and a tad less obsessed than our cross-Bay rivals. Brian liked to bike to work and his wife taught Special Ed at an Oakland school. But maybe the less greedy thing had changed.
And maybe he thought an innocent little Berkeley firm wouldn’t catch his shenanigans.
This is how it worked: an EE analyst gets approached by a company that’s concerned about the expense of an EIR, or even the possibility that the report will block their development project and asks if he can make a few tweaks. Because many of the government decisions on these projects are based on relatively narrow parameters, some minor adjustments to the Initial Study can be just the ticket to saving millions for the company—and a quick six figures for the obliging engineer.
And if word got out, it could be the end of Bell Environmental Design.
Had Brian made such an arrangement, or was this just an innocent or sloppy mistake? While I’m not the type to panic, I am the type to project worst cases. Or maybe the fact that my heart was beating faster and my breath getting shallow meant that I was the type to panic.
“What do you think we should do?” I asked Trevor.
“We could get IT to go through his emails and see if there is any correspondence that tips us off.”
“What are we, the NSA now?”
“Everyone signs an agreement when they’re hired that all their electronic communication is subject to disclosure.”
“I didn’t know you went to EE and law school.”
“It was just a suggestion.”
“That’s okay,” I said, getting up from his desk. “I’ve got another idea.”
In an instant-gratification, download-this, there’s-an-app-for-that culture, where overnight isn’t fast enough, please deliver my baby’s diapers by drone, golf is an anachronism. A quick round takes three hours and not so quick can stretch to five. Those longer rounds tend to be on weekends when golfers flock to the course and do a lot more standing waiting than swinging hitting, and while I believe that time spent on the links is always time well-spent, there’s a limit. This leaves the serious practitioner of the game little choice but to carve out weekday rounds. One needed to look for every opportunity, and the Brian situation had given me one for that Thursday.
From my plug-in car I made a tee-time at Monarch Bay, a course near the Dilworth offices, then checked the traffic report. There was a problem on something called the Santa Mas expressway, wherever that was (my limited Spanish suggested it meant “More Saints,” but that seemed unlikely). I always checked the traffic reports when I got in the car, even if I was just going to the store. That way I felt like I was in touch with all the other drivers and the pulse of the region.
Next I called Eddie Hauser, Director of Environmental Planning and Mitigation at Dilworth. Although I was using BlueTooth, Dilworth’s money-saving, job-destroying phone system required that I enter an extension. Fortunately the light on University Avenue stopped me so I could punch in the numbers.
“Monarch Bay in an hour, Eddie.”
“Arty? What’s up?”
“We need to talk, and I want to do it in the wide open spaces where I can’t be bugged.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Never mind, just get your sticks and join me.”
“Art, I can’t. I’m buried here.”
“Well, if the hotel doesn’t get built, there won’t be anything to get buried under.” This wasn’t the best grammatical construction I’d ever used, but I figured it made the point.
“Don’t fuck with me, Art.”
I put on Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” to capture the mood as I jumped on the highway.
The view of the Bay is beautiful as you cruise the Eastshore Freeway, but clearly the designers never thought about rising sea levels because around the time Miami Beach gets renamed Miami Bay, this will become an underwater artifact of the Interstate system.
I came into what the radio traffic reporters call “The Maze,” the collection of highways that spill onto the Bay Bridge and are responsible for the daily crush of commuters who keep radio traffic reporters in business. Fortunately at this time of day there was only a minor slowdown, and soon I was heading south.
Down a sweeping flyover, past downtown Oakland, then through a post-industrial wasteland, the highway came to the sports complex and airport exit before reaching my destination, San Leandro. How the good folks of this working class town decided to build a golf course is a mystery to me, but there it stands, a jewel by the Bay.
* * *
The eighteen-hole links-style course called Monarch Bay for the butterflies who stop on their yearly migration runs along the water, making afternoon rounds a wind-challenged struggle. As expected the fog had rolled back like a grey yoga mat to its usual hideaway beyond the Golden Gate.
Monarch, like many of my local tracks was a toxic mess when I first began to play there. Over the course of several years I used a carrot and stick approach to move them toward organic, sustainable facilities. First I would approach the superintendents who were my natural allies. As the people most intimately involved with the grass, they were well aware of the toxicity of the greens and fairways. Of course they were aware: they were applying the pesticides. They didn’t usually like it, but they had no choice, as they were under constant pressure to create and sustain a picture-perfect course, both from their superiors and from the customers.
Once I talked with the superintendent and explained how we could convert to a healthier way of maintenance, I went to the management company and told them I was going to sue them under NEPA—the National Environmental Policy Act–the law that “promotes the enhancement of the environment” (passed under President Nixon of all people). Just as one of these low-life executives reached for the phone to call his lawyer, I would offer an alternative. I would provide consulting services to his superintendent for conversion to an environmentally friendly course on a pro-bono basis. True, it would involve replacing the soil under a lot of the greens, which meant replacing the turf on top, but you wouldn’t have to tell people not to lick their golf balls anymore. (Really, it made people sick.)
The super and I would work out a strategy of fixing greens one at a time so the course could stay open and wean the fairways from pesticides with love and earthworms. The final carrot for Elitist Golf Inc., or whatever the ownership was called, would be a new marketing campaign that put them squarely on the correct (not to say right) side of Bay Area environmental awareness. Organically grown golf; artisanal greens; grass fed grass. Now featuring kale, quinoa, and tofu sandwiches at the turn.
Of course, my pro bono wasn’t completely bono; over the years I’d played thousands of dollars worth of free rounds. Sometimes I even pushed my luck and asked the pro shop to give me a couple extra tee times so there’d be twenty minutes between me and the group in front. That way I never had to stand on the fairway waiting interminably for someone to finish putting—the curse of the golfer.
On this day, we were scheduled to go off at 12:30, and indeed, I’d managed to get the course opened up. I wanted plenty of room for my round with Eddie.
I went into the pro shop and was greeted by an animatronic Rickie Fowler in full Rickie-orange swinging the latest TaylorMade driver in slo-mo. This was pre-haircut Rickie, and they’d captured his impish smile, though its static quality spooked me.
“Is that really how he swings?” I asked the young man in an Under Armour shirt behind the counter.
“No idea, Mr. Bell.”
“What’s that hair made of?”
“It looks like the same stuff they make Christmas tree tinsel from,” he said. “Only brown.”
“Creepy,” I said as I took a score card and pencil. “I’m taking a cart today, Billy.”
“Never saw you ride one, Mr. Bell,” he said.
“Always a first time.”
He handed me a cart key and a receipt that showed my tee time, even though I wasn’t paying.
I went outside, loaded up my clubs on the cart, and took my putter to the practice green. After missing a few five-footers, I stood upright and sighed. My thoughts returned to my brother-in-law.
What is it about the family drama that holds one’s interest in a way that the quotidian problems of work and business do not? Some primal sense of clan presumably triggers deep evolutionary responses. My brother-in-law’s club golf tournament surely shouldn’t engage me as thoroughly as the present threat to my business. Though, perhaps it was just the wish not to think about that threat that caused my mind to wander to Jeremy’s problems. Or maybe it was the sixth sense that Jeremy wasn’t telling me everything.
I decided to write him a text:
R u practicing?
So as to get a feel for the speed of the green, I tried a twenty-footer. It lipped out. Not a bad sign. As I lined up another one, my mobile dinged.
Just as I suspected, which is why I had a response ready.
‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’ John Wooden
That ought to get through to him.
He was worse off than I’d thought. I should call Connie and find out what the real problem was.
Jeremy’s response to last year’s tournament debacle was typical of the modern golfer: buy more gear. He’d traded in his year-old golf clubs for the latest model; invested in a variety of gadgets sold for $19.99 on late night Golf Channel infomercials; and according to his Christmas Facebook postings, even bought a few new golf outfits. None of this was a substitute for the one essential for improvement: practice. My efforts to convince him of this fact had about the same effect as my efforts to convince Natalie to keep her bedroom clean.
In the midst of these thoughts Hauser showed up dragging his clubs and looking harried and un-golflike in a loosened tie and business slacks, muddy golf shoes in hand. He’d always been barrel-chested, but the years had expanded the barrel to include his belly. The buttons on his dress shirt looked ready to pop. Like me, he’d lost a lot of hair, but unlike me, he allowed the remaining fringe to grow out over his collar.
Suddenly I felt tense. I hated this kind of confrontation.
“You’re kidding,” he said when he saw the cart with my clubs. “I thought you always said carts were for ‘duffers and dilettantes’.” He strapped his golf bag to the back of the cart and we got in.
“They are. But I want you close today.”
“Are you going to tell me what this is about?” He untied his polished shoes, put them in the basket behind us, and slipped on his spiked golf shoes.
“Let’s just get out on the course, okay?”
Eddie Hauser wasn’t exactly what I’d call a friend, but I’d known him a long time, since grad school. We’d stayed in touch over the years, working together on various projects and even helping each other with job leads. In fact I’d introduced him to Cameron Collins, the V.P. of Hospitality Development who hired him at Dilworth. While we’d taken different paths, he right into the for-profit world, and I otherwise, I knew that he had integrity. I didn’t suspect him as the source of any manipulation on the Initial Study, but that didn’t mean he knew nothing.
The starter waved us to the tee, and I looked out at the site of an open first hole. At this moment I’m usually enlivened with the thrill of transcendence and hope. A golf course is its own world. As we enter it, we’re supposed to leave the other world behind, but today I was dragging the outside world in. As I approached my first drive I tried to apply the teachings of mindfulness all the sports psychologists were talking about, feeling my breath, my heartbeat, and the soft earth beneath my feet, but mostly I felt anxious and irritable.
When I took a new ball from my bag, Hauser looked at me.
“You still using new balls?” he asked.
“One per round.”
“I stopped using new balls,” he said. “I don’t want to add more plastic to the environment.”
I’d heard this argument before, but I had a thing about using a new ball. Luck, ritual, something. I figured I made up for it in a hundred other ways. My electric car alone, which I charged with energy from our solar panels, reduced my carbon footprint by twenty-four percent.
As the host, I let Hauser drive first, and not surprisingly his ball flew hard to the right, landing somewhere in the trees that line the first fairway. It’s never easy to hit the first drive when your partner has practically ordered you to the course. I managed to keep mine straight, though as usual my lack of distance left me a long approach shot.
For “recreational golfers” such as myself, inconsistency is the bugaboo. Typically any round is characterized by one part of your game falling apart. If your drives are straight, then your putts won’t fall. If your putts are going in, then your chips are all skulled. If your chips are accurate, your fairways shots are chunked. Further, each of us has some habitual failings in our game that keep recurring. We may struggle for years to overcome a slice, but when under pressure, it returns. In the words of the wise man, “It’s always something.” Unfortunately, some days it’s everything. I was afraid today might be one of those.
We proceeded up the course in the dreadful cart, both of us showing little inspiration in our play. After one we crossed the Estudillo Canal, which drains the San Leandro watershed and divides the course as it runs to the Bay. On the other side of the broad canal, with no trees or natural obstructions the open links began in earnest. After chunking my second shot on two, I began to wonder if this was a good idea. Maybe I should have just gone to Dilworth’s office for this conversation.
In any case, if I was going to play this poorly, I might as well begin my inquiries. After putting out for our double bogies on two, we walked back toward the cart.
“How has it been working with Cummings?” I asked.
“Brian?” said Hauser. “He’s great. Very efficient and precise. Has he got the IS ready? He said any day now.”
“We’re still refining it. Trevor is looking at it.”
“Oh,” grunted Hauser.
“Well, that guy, Trevor, he’s kind of a tight ass, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Although I might have known what he meant, I’d rather act as if I didn’t to see what he said.
We put our putters back in our bags and headed to the third tee. One long par 4 after another was beating us up. I remembered now what I didn’t like about this course. Not a great place for a short hitter.
“He just, you know, seems to want to make everything difficult. Brian doesn’t make us sweat the small stuff.”
“Eddie, environmental engineering is all about the small stuff. We have to sweat it.”
“I know, I know. You don’t have to lecture me, Art. I’ve got a degree, too. You’re not the only one who knows how these things work.”
On three we both started to find our games, and Eddie even parred the hole with a long putt from the fringe. My own bogie felt like an improvement.
“Nice,” I said. “Keep that up.”
But he didn’t, his drive on the par 3 overshooting the green into the hazard. After he found his own ball, he kept digging around until he came out with four others. He held them up to show how environmentally sensitive he was. I just nodded and waited for him to chip on.
On the fourth tee I decided it was time to just come out with it.
“There’s a problem, Eddie. With the IS.”
“What kind of problem?” He was washing the balls he’d found, turning the handle on the machine.
“The kind of problem that can sink a consulting firm.”
“Okay. So what is it?” He dried his balls and stood still with his hands full.
“Do you know if anyone has made any…any ‘requests’ of Brian?” I brushed my driver over the short grass on the tee box.
“’Requests’? Are you asking me if we tried to manipulate the results?” He turned toward me with an angry look.
“It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to fix an IS.”
“That’s why you dragged me out here?” He was rolling his found golf balls in his hands.
“I thought you’d enjoy getting out of the office.”
“Not for an interrogation.”
“Eddie, this is my whole business, my whole livelihood. Everything I do rests on the integrity of our reporting. If I have even an inkling that somewhere along the chain somebody fucked with it, I have to dig. Trevor and I were going over Brian’s report today, and there are some discrepancies.”
He blew out a breath and shook his head.
“Wow,” was all he said. “What did Emily say?”
He knew that normally she’d be the first person I talked to about this.
“I haven’t told her yet,” I said. “There’s nothing she can do to help at this point, and I want to limit who knows about it for now.”
He tapped his driver head on the ground and turned to look out at the Bay.
“I just needed to ask you,” I said. “I mean, I’m not accusing you, but you’re the only person I really trust over there, so I had to start with you.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re right to be careful. But I don’t know anything. Mostly I just answer Brian’s questions, give him the data he wants.”
“Is it possible anyone else has been talking to him?”
He thought about it. “Maybe.”
“We need to find out.”
Shared experience relieves one of a great deal of the need to speak. This may explain why aged couples eat silently in restaurants, although, it’s possible that they’ve simply run out of things to say to each other after all those years. In any case, Eddie and I, with our shared business experience had little need to discuss the stakes involved in the present situation. If he discovered that his superior had been trying to manipulate the IS it put him in the worst possible position, whistle blowing his boss. And if I found one of my senior engineers was on the take, my whole business was under threat. We both knew we were going to have to tread carefully.
Nonetheless, with this unpleasantness out of the way, I could turn my attention to the matter at hand: the long par five. As is so often the case, the anticipation of a confrontation had been worse than the thing itself. And so, with that weight lifted, this usually intimidating hole actually looked inviting. My drive caught the wind and ran out almost two hundred and thirty-five yards. My best shot all day.
At the turn, Hauser went into the restaurant while I fell back on the bad habit of checking the email on my phone. Thankfully there was nothing to disturb the course of my round. When he came out with two sixteen-ounce cans of Pabst, he gave me a sheepish look. Since he knew I didn’t drink, they were apparently both for him.
“Hey,” he said popping the first can. “It’s hot out here. And they don’t have a cart girl.”
Some courses would have a young woman driving around with snacks and refreshments to serve the people on the course on hot summer days.
“I didn’t say anything,” I said.
“Just cause you’re an alkie doesn’t mean nobody else can enjoy themselves.”
“Really, it doesn’t bother me.” And, oddly enough, it didn’t.
Hauser had known me in grad school over twenty-five years before when my drinking reached a crescendo of sorts. I was on the verge of flunking out when my thesis adviser, who had seen me stinko at one too many student/faculty get-togethers, told me if I wanted to continue in EE I needed to go to AA. It turned out he’d been in the program himself for a couple of decades, was in fact a kind of campus counselor for the many grad students who found themselves descending into alcoholic oblivion under the stresses of pursuing the doctorate. Most people I knew now had never even seen me have a drink, but Hauser was there on one or two of my final benders. He may have even picked me up out of a gutter once or twice, although such memories, if they hadn’t been expunged by booze, were quickly relegated to the subconscious.
The truth is, even then I never drank on the golf course. I suppose I didn’t play much in those days with drinking and studying taking up all my time. But I’ve never seen alcohol improve someone’s golf swing.
Sure enough, by the time Hauser was halfway through his second sixteen ouncer he started hitting some embarrassing shots. As much as I like to play better than my partners, I hate to see someone play below their ability, and when Hauser topped his drive on fourteen and it ran out about fifty yards, I just looked away.
We finished up the round, and I insisted he sit with me and eat something and have a cup of coffee, even though they say giving coffee to a drunk just makes them a wide awake drunk. He seemed half sober by the time I left, so I didn’t make him call a cab.
When I looked at my scorecard I was pleasantly surprised to see I hadn’t played badly by my standards. After clearing the air with Eddie, I’d shot a pretty good round. At least the beloved wouldn’t complain about my bad golf mood.
Before getting on the freeway north, I heard the traffic report, which told me to avoid the freeway north. Unfortunately, alternatives didn’t exist.
* * *
Though ordinarily I might have foregone a return to the office, today it seemed wise to see what I could see. After taking an hour to travel twelve miles, I found only Trevor remained, hunched over his desk.
“Hey, boss,” he said without looking at me.
“Is that how your yoga teacher tells you to sit?”
As though he hadn’t realized what his posture was, he looked up.
“You’re right,” he said, and went into a stretching routine, hands over the head, tilting left and right. “I was actually about to leave for class.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “We can talk tomorrow. I just was wondering…is there any reason you know that Brian would need extra money?”
He packed up his laptop in a shoulder bag and stood up. He looked over toward Brian’s empty desk.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, there’s the usual stuff, I guess, student loans and credit cards.” He stopped and looked at me.
“What?” I asked.
“I just…,” he said. “He’s been talking about buying a house, said he needed more space for some reason. I mean, he didn’t say anything about the money, but down payments around here…”
Yes, down payments and mortgages had reached stratospheric levels in Berkeley and the whole area. Our own bungalow, bought in the relatively boomless late nineties, would probably be unaffordable for Martha and me today.
“Sure,” I said. Already this felt creepy, trying to figure out if Brian was a crook or if he’d just made an innocent mistake. “I still have a hard time seeing it.”
“I went back over his report,” said Trevor.
“And I got the same result.”
“I met with Eddie Hauser,” I said without mentioning our meeting venue. “I don’t think this starts with him.”
“So, what now?”
“I have to be very careful,” I said. “If I accuse one of my engineers of fraud, I have to know I’m right. On the other hand, if I start asking him questions and he realizes I’m on to him, he might cover his tracks.”
“Exactly why you need to see his email.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not ready for that. Not yet, at least.”
He shrugged. “Well, just let me know what you decide.” He headed for the door. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Clearly he didn’t like the way I was handling this, but I wasn’t going to let Trevor influence me. Loyalty is one of the most precious commodities in a company like mine, and I wasn’t going to threaten it by going off half-cocked.
Just before heading out I got a call from Martha.
“Nat needs a ride,” she said. “She had to stay for debate.”
“Not much exercise debating,” I said, grabbing my shoulder bag, punching in the alarm code, and heading down the stairs.
“It’s good for her college resume.”
“Yeah, but she used to run five days a week with basketball. Now I’m just concerned.” I nodded at someone coming out of the organic tea company on the first floor and walked out to the parking lot.
“You know. She’s at that age.”
“You know, where she could—that not exercising enough could like…” I beeped the car door open and got in.
“Are you saying your daughter is going to get fat?”
“I’m not saying fat.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m not saying anything. I’m just concerned.”
“She goes to the gym three days a week and hikes on weekends.”
“Yeah, that’s good.”
“Yes, it’s fine. Now stop being a jerk and go pick her up.”
Another tennis volley lost.
Coming up University Avenue toward the high school from our west Berkeley office I questioned again the benefits of having our daughter in the Berkeley High Debate Club. What parent wants their child to get better at arguing? But I suppose at this point, the needs of the college application overrode any parental wishes for family harmony. As she got in the car I turned down the radio.
Conversations with Natalie can vary widely. Unless you hit the right topic, all you get are “fines” and “okays.” I wanted to ask about the boyfriend and the whole go-to-college-together thing, but I thought I better stay away from that as the beloved had requested. So far her day had been “fine,” and her classes were “okay.” As usual, her attention was divided as she scrolled through her phone, presumably liking or trying to be liked. That’s as far as I had gotten by the time we were halfway home. But then I hit the jackpot.
“What were you debating today?”
“Gun control,” she said. “Mark and I got to argue against a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment.”
“My debate team partner. He’s like an expert on debating. I’ve been learning a ton.”
“Yeah,” she said, for a moment looking up from the phone. “Mr. Carston in gov. was talking about how the phrase ‘a well-regulated militia’ has been used to basically say anyone can have a gun. And then there’s the whole argument about the comma.”
“Right.” I knew better than to comment if I wanted her to keep going.
“So our opponents were trying to argue that since it’s in the constitution you couldn’t change it, and Mark and I were like ‘It’s an amendment. Do you know what amend means?’ So we totally nailed it.”
“Of course, if we’d been assigned the pro side, I would have made a completely different argument.”
I reflected on this. Wasn’t this the whole problem with debate? Learning how to manipulate facts and logic to score points rather than actually taking an ethical position. This was one of those thoughts I knew I’d be best not verbalizing.
“Oh, yeah,” said Natalie in a tone that signaled topic change. “We need you to be a judge for the tournament this weekend.”
“Traffic report!” I quickly turned up the radio. The problems on the freeways always seemed to be in areas and exits I’d never seen. Why were there always accidents on 17 and 680 or near Stone Valley Road? And what were the Summit and the Sunol Grade? I listened rapt to the description of an overturned big rig on East 580. As usual a motorcycle was involved.
“Dad! Are you listening to me? Why do you care about the traffic report when we’re just driving across Berkeley?”
The traffic report transitioned into the weather report. I turned the radio back down. Weather in Berkeley never changed in June.
“What did you say?”
“You need to judge the debate tournament on Saturday.”
“Wait, what?! A judge?! I don’t know how to be a debate judge.”
“You don’t have to know anything. They train you. We’re going to San Constanzo. You can drive me and Mark out.”
Turning on to Solano, it occurred to me that I should welcome this opportunity. Since she’d gotten her license, riding around time had been severely curtailed, and with your children, riding around time is sometimes the only together time. Certainly not the ideal situation for bonding, but one must take advantage of whatever opportunities fate allows. Rooting for the debate team didn’t have quite the glamour of cheering on the basketball team, but I supposed it was all part of the diminishing power I had over my daughter the older she got.
A group of “Gray Panthers” were standing in front of the shuttered movie theater with signs, “Tax the rich,” “Hands off Social Security,” and “Honk if you want to breathe air.” Traffic backed up as some of them hobbled through the crosswalk.
With the feeling that our journey across rush hour Berkeley had softened the young beloved’s mood, I decided to ignore Martha’s guidance regarding the boyfriend. I thought that Natalie’s horizons would be obscured if she spent her college years in a relationship brought from home. And God forbid they got the idea to marry.
Lurking in the back of my mind was the fear that my motives were questionable. Those fears, planted by Martha, suggested that some unhealthy father-daughter bond was the real driver behind my wish to separate the young lovers. As I preferred to avoid gazing into the back of my mind, I had so far succeeded in squelching those fears.
“So, UC San Diego?” I said. Martha had told me this was Natalie and the boyfriend’s number one pick together.
“Yeah, awesome, huh?”
“I thought you didn’t like it when we visited.”
We’d made it there on our “Spring Break SoCal” trip to visit schools, but weren’t impressed when the tour guide had taken us outside and told us, “The number one reason to pick UCSD? Look at this weather!” Berkeley and Stanford competed for most Nobel Prizes. UCSD for most sunny days.
“No, it’s okay. It’s good,” she said.
Her enthusiasm was restrained, to say the least. “Okay” and “Good” in her world fell far short of approval. I didn’t want to set her off, so I left it at that, confident now that there was a crack in her commitment. Now to just figure out how to wedge it further apart.
One discovers that a kindness done for the daughter earns praise and appreciation from the mother, in effect doubling the benefit. And so it was with my agreement (not that I had a choice) to be a judge for the young beloved’s coming debate. This appreciation was doubled again since my absence on a Saturday would give Martha the house to herself, hours of privacy that every parent sought.
With Natalie in her room doing homework after dinner, I moved from this pleasant topic to the not-so-pleasant topic of the Dilworth IS while we cleaned up the kitchen.
“So you really think Brian is taking payoffs?” asked Martha after I explained the situation. She stacked plates next to the sink for me to rinse.
Hearing it described that way gave me pause. Though I might not know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, it was hard to imagine the kind of betrayal and fraud that we were talking about.
“I can’t believe it either. We just have to keep looking.” I worked on the pan where she’d grilled the chicken.
“Could Trevor be wrong about the numbers?” Martha started gently working at a grease spill on the Wedgewood stove.
“It’s possible, but Trevor is so meticulous.”
“Have you talked to Emily about it yet?” she asked.
“There’s a certain tension between those two,” I said. “I think they have a King—or Queen—of-the-Hill thing going on in the office, and I don’t want that to distract from the main issue. Anyway, you know how she can be.”
“Tends to worry?”
“I just have to keep poking around. Trevor wants me to go through Brian’s email.”
“Oh, God. Has it really come to that?”
“That’s what I said.”
I started putting the dishes in the dishwasher while she wiped off the counters.
“I’ve got an emergency meeting with the dean in the morning, so I’ll be leaving early.”
“I thought this was finals weeks and you were just meeting with students to discuss their papers.”
“There’s an emotional support pet issue.”
“Academics never kid.”
Martha taught at Clark College, a small Catholic school on the other side of the East Bay Hills known for its scrappy basketball team and high acceptance rate. Despite its small student body, it was getting caught up in the same diversity and finance issues that were sweeping the world of higher education.
“There’s a girl who’s been bringing her tiny dog to her creative writing workshop.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound so—“
“But Carol is allergic to dog hair.” Carol Voiseau was one of Martha’s colleagues in the English Department.
“How did Carol get through the semester?”
“She got a prescription that helped her breathe. But now the dog student is protesting her grade. She claims Carol was biased against her.”
“And you are involved in this because…?”
“My brilliant mediation skills.”
“Nice to be recognized for your talents.”
I put dishwashing liquid in the machine, closed it up and pushed the start button.
“Maybe you could use this in your novel.” She was planning to finish the first draft of her satirical novel about academia over the summer break.
“Yeah, you’re right.” I got out the 409 and sprayed the counters. “Listen, I was talking to Nat about UCSD.”
“I thought I asked you not to do that.”
“I know, but I don’t think she really wants to go there.”
“Well, it’s a good school, but the surf and party culture don’t really seem suited for her.” Martha leaned back against the wall and watched the progress of my cleaning.
“Exactly. So I was thinking—
“Arthur, don’t do this.”
“No, but I really think there’s a way—“
“It’s not a good idea.” She pointed out a place where grease had dripped between the burners of the stove.
“How do you know? You won’t even let me say it.”
“I know what you’re going to say.”
“Okay, I don’t know exactly what you’re going to say, but I don’t think we need to try to change her mind. I think her mind will change on its own.”
“You have a lot of faith.”
“Not faith. I just know how teenage girls’ minds work. If you try to control them, they rebel. If you let them go, they usually figure things out. Especially Natalie. She’s a serious girl.”
“Yeah, but this boyfriend.”
“Forget the boyfriend.”
“I wish I could.”
When one is being assaulted by the Hueys and Dilworths, the boyfriends and college applications, the debate clubs and emotional support pets of this world, nothing brings as much consolation as a visit to that great healer, the golf pro. And so I rose early and took the trek to Alameda to meet my swing coach, Johnny Graves. To be clear, not just any pro will do, and in fact, I had been traumatized more than once by charlatans who couldn’t teach mini-golf to an Olympic athlete. These poseurs can be found at every course bilking the natives with talk of swing planes and weight shifts that anyone could pick up on the Golf Channel, which is probably where they first heard it. What one needed was someone with eyes and instincts, with compassion and wisdom.
Most golfers are severely limited by talent and body parts, and when they are given the PGA treatment by the poseurs, bilkers, and charlatans, it either goes over their heads, which is useless, or they actually try to implement it, which is downright dangerous, and will likely take their game from bad to humiliating, and may even require back surgery. What we need most of all is someone who works with our limitations, not someone who wants us to overcome them.
Johnny was all this and more. You see, putting yourself in the hands of a golf instructor is a little like putting yourself in the hands of a surgeon—no, it’s more frightening than that because at least the surgeon can give you an anesthetic while he operates, where the golf pro works on you wide awake.
When you step in front of the seasoned pro, the first thing you realize is that he (or she) sees all. Your swing is naked and exposed to him (or her), and so you are completely vulnerable. The great fear is that this wise master will break down laughing at your foolish attempts to strike a ball. “It’s no use,” you imagine them saying. “I can’t help you. Have you considered taking up tennis?”
The antidote to this fear is to stroll slowly down the driving range and watch the other duffers feeble attempts to mimic a golfer. Surely, you think, I can’t be that bad. Of course, you can, but it’s best not to think about that. And don’t by any means, allow anyone (even your instructor) to show you a video of your swing. I would even recommend avoiding ever taking a shot with your back to a low-slung sun that might allow you to see the shadow of your swing. Such a vision has been known to destroy a golfer’s confidence for years.
On this morning, I merely sought Johnny’s counsel on my short game.
The sight of him on the misty practice range was enough to inspire confidence. Outfitted in all the proper logos, with a Polo shirt and slacks, he stood beside a custom golf bag, his name inscribed down the side. Johnny tended not only to the unwashed locals such as myself, but to loftier personages like aspiring professionals and even the local NBA coach. Never one to jump into a lesson, he always had a tale to tell of a friend or relative who had just played a round at the Olympic Club with one of the Giants or 49ers. It made you feel that you were almost a personage yourself. For some reason, these stories never seemed to involve one of my favorite, the Oakland A’s, which I assumed was the result of the transience of the team, with players being shuffled in and out too quickly to get involved in the finer aspects of Bay Area life, that is, the golf aspect.
We drifted over to the short game practice area with a few wedges and he demonstrated the shot he wanted me to learn, the setup, the rhythm, the touch, the swing. There was a relaxed elegance in his actions, one I was happy just to watch. Time after time he effortlessly lofted the ball onto the green, eventually leaving the hole surrounded by balls. Then he went and cleared the balls off the green and dropped several at my feet. I feared my own talent and body parts weren’t up to snuff.
I took a try and skulled the ball. I blushed and mumbled something about my incompetence.
Johnny, whose livelihood depended upon irredeemably incompetent golfers believing redemption was possible, patiently demonstrated again, emphasizing certain aspects of the swing that I had overlooked previously. Because random bits of golf instruction can be as dangerous to the player as a six-pack on the back nine, I will not pass on his exact words. However, once I had absorbed them, I tried again. Lo and behold, the ball floated gently into the air, landing softly on the green and rolling just two feet past the pin.
I have found with golf lessons that you can—and should—only learn one thing per lesson. The bane of the golfer is thinking about the shot. What you must do is train the body, not the brain. We must train the body to do what it should without any thought—muscle memory and all that. Clearly what he had shown me was the one thing for this lesson.
Of course, nothing is as easy as it sounds, especially in golf. And so, the remaining part of our hour (although Johnny’s lessons are just fifty minutes, like a psychiatrist) was devoted to repeating the shot. And an hour well spent, if I do say so.
“You look good with that,” said Johnny.
“Yeah, it’s really my irons I’ve been having trouble with. I keep pulling them.”
“Then why are we practicing chips?”
“I don’t want you to see how bad my irons are.”
Johnny just stared at me and shook his head. I figured that since he spent his days with golfers he was used to irrational thinking.
“Why don’t you come back and work on that pull?”
“Are you sure?”
“Some flaws maybe it’s best just to accept.”
“How are you going to get better if you don’t attack your weaknesses?
“Is it really possible to get better at golf, Johnny?” I said. “I mean, does anyone really improve?”
Obviously not willing to delve into these deeper philosophical questions, Johnny strolled back toward the driving range. I followed, wedges in hand.
He looked up the range. “My next lesson hasn’t gotten here yet,” he said. “Let me see you hit an iron.”
Feeling trapped, I looked around, hoping his student would appear. “The rest of my clubs are in my car.”
“Use one of mine,” he said, pointing at his monogrammed bag.
“Really, it’s more the short irons,” I said.
“Good.” He grabbed an eight iron and handed it to me.
I held the club, a finer brand than mine, turning it over and running my hand up the leather grip. Johnny tipped a bucket of balls over on the plastic mat in front of me.
With no escape, I stepped up and hit a ball with the eight iron. Predictably I pulled it left.
“See,” I said, as though I’d demonstrated the impossibility of correcting such an error.
“Yeah, I see what you’re doing.” He took the club from me and demonstrated what I was doing wrong and what I should do to correct it.
Once again, I am tempted to share his guidance, but again I will refrain.
He handed back the eight iron, and I prepared to follow his suggestion by taking a practice swing. It felt odd, but he was the teacher. I stepped up and struck the ball, and sure enough, it flew straight and true.
“There you go,” he said. “Just do that.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“You want me to make it more complicated?”
I hit another one. Same result.
“No, no,” I said, amazed that he’d corrected my (current) worst problem in thirty seconds.
“No charge,” he chuckled and walked back into his makeshift office, a prefab cabin.
It occurred to me that I might have a bad attitude about my game right now. Not exactly what I needed as I looked forward to the dreaded Hueys.
The thought of the Hueys reminded me that I really had to talk to Jeremy and get to what was really bothering him. I’d convinced myself that there was more than the golf tournament with the Hueys, despicable as they might be. After tucking my wedges back in the trunk, I texted him and told him to call as soon as he had a minute. The traffic was crawling up 880 like a fivesome on a Saturday in July. I turned on the radio and got the news that traffic was crawling up 880. The morning fog was taking longer than usual to burn off, or roll back, though it had thinned enough that I needed sunglasses for the glare. I clicked shuffle on my phone’s music app and a local hero, Chris Isaak, came on singing “Wicked Game.” Dreamy and sad. Like Roy Orbison on Oxycontin. Perfect.
Before Chris reached the chorus, my phone rang and the song cut out.
“Finally,” I said.
“I’m swamped,” said Jeremy. “What’s up?”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you. My wife says your wife says there’s something other than the Hueys bothering you.”
“Oh, lord. Why does she have to get into that?”
“Well, is there?”
Surrounded by eighteen-wheelers and delivery vans, I could feel the tension building in my shoulders.
“Look, this isn’t the time,” he said. “When are you guys coming out?”
“Well, Natalie’s school ends next week, and Martha’s got to turn in her grades. I think she got tickets for two weeks from now. That gives us a week to practice together.”
“We can talk then, okay?”
“Well, can you at least give me a hint?”
“I just need your expert opinion on something.”
“Oh, well if you need to know how to hit out of a fairway bunker, I’m your man.”
I considered what I was expert on. Golf (well, not exactly “expert” expert, but maybe more obsessive). What else? There was only one other thing about which I could even remotely be called “expert”: environmental engineering. Why would Jeremy need that from me?
Before I could ask him that question, his secretary interrupted him and he hung up.
I guess I would have to wait, not my favorite activity. Meanwhile, I needed to keep my focus on Brian and the Dilworth I.S.
I called Trevor into my office when I got back, and we sat on stools at the half-moon gaming table I had by the window that looked out on the low-slung brick building across Channing Way.
“Have you talked to anyone?” I asked.
“No one,” said Trevor.
I glanced back at the office. With twenty-three total employees, it wasn’t easy to keep secrets. People were close in this office.
“I want to bring Emily in on this,” I said. “She usually has a good perspective on sensitive issues.”
“Do we have to?” he asked.
“What’s the problem?”
“No problem, I’d just like to avoid word spreading.”
“Me too,” I said. I leaned back in my seat and thought about it. Pretty soon I was going to want her advice, even if it came with a high level of her anxiety. “Okay, for now it’s just you and me. I’ve met with Hauser, and he’s going to poke around at Dilworth. Now we have to start on the city and county. We have to be smart, here. In a situation like this it won’t be a low level bureaucrat who’s involved. They don’t have the resources or the motivation. Someone higher up might have gotten tapped by Dilworth. But the ground troops might be aware or at least have some suspicions. Is there someone you know and trust at the Alameda County Public Works?”
“Maybe. Let me go through my contacts.”
“Good. I’ll take Hayward. I’ve worked with their permitting office a few times.”
I got on the phone and started making calls. I couldn’t take the direct approach I had with Hauser, not with the complex web of relationships I was dealing with. I just had to get a feel, if I could, of where this whole thing originated.
The problem was, every time I got a hold of someone in the City of Hayward, some other issue came up that they wanted to talk about. It was like searching for a lost drive in the woods and finding a dozen other balls, but not your own. I was getting nowhere. And now I had a pile of old golf balls to carry around. I hate old golf balls.
I felt the stress building in my shoulders again as I got more and more irritated. I looked out at Brian who was sitting at his desk working, and I started getting mad at him. Why was he causing me this problem? This was just the sort of nonsense I always wanted to avoid.
The afternoon dragged slowly, painfully by, my ear getting sore from pressing it to the phone. A mug of coffee barely kept me awake.
Late in the day Martha texted me that she was going to a reading of one of her friends at a Montclair bookstore. Natalie was having dinner at Jordan’s, so I decided to go to an AA meeting. I didn’t do that very often anymore, but watching Eddie Hauser guzzle beers on the golf course the day before reminded me it was best to stay in touch with the program. Climbing the stairs to the meeting room on the second floor of the Solano Community Church I could hear the familiar roar of pre-meeting conversation, and it relaxed me.
When I came in the room I greeted a half-dozen people whose first names I’d known for a decade, people I would call friends, but whose last names I’d never learned. I took a seat on one of the mismatched folding chairs in the back as the secretary banged on the table.
“Welcome,” she said. A forty-something brunette in a grey business suit, Cathy had been around nearly as long as me. Beside her was a guy I didn’t recognize in painters’ overalls with splatters of white and blue in his hair—presumably the speaker for the evening. “This is the Thursday night Attitude Adjustment Meeting,” she began reading from a laminated sheet, reminding us of some of the rules and guidelines and asking people to silence their phones.
Unlike the typical church basement meeting, this group met in a room filled with light, the back wall lined with south-facing bay windows. A standup piano in the corner was sometimes a source of before or after meeting entertainment from one of the members.
The room was also used for Sunday school, and the walls were covered with crayon drawings of Noah’s Ark and his animals. The innocence of the drawings stood in contrast to the stories we told in this room, stories of debauchery and despair, but I always felt that the way we lived now, sober and honest, was a kind of return to our own innocence.
The speaker, his name was Aaron, was funny, the life of a drunken housepainter having many opportunities for the bizarre—he once got an address mixed up and painted the wrong house (the owners were out of town at the time and were not pleased upon their return)—and the harrowing—he broke his back falling off a ladder, and it still took three more years of binge drinking before he admitted he had a problem.
There’s something about these stories I’ve been listening to for so long that I find comforting. I guess it’s that everyone turns out okay in the end—I know some of these speakers might relapse later, but the story as it stands is always redemptive. And the meetings provide a simple camaraderie, the feeling that these people understand something about me that most people can’t.
After Aaron the floor was open, but I wasn’t in the mood to say anything, just listen to the familiar stories, the gratitude and the whining, the fear and the almost religious fanaticism, the God talk and the no-God talk. I’d heard it all for so long that it almost felt like a play or a movie I’d seen a dozen times. I wasn’t unaffected by what people were going through, but I didn’t get quite so hooked in their drama as I once had. And that somehow helped me unhook from my own drama.
I passed on a dinner invitation with the crowd afterward, and instead picked up a burrito and went home to watch the rerun of the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus’s tournament. With two weeks to go before the U.S. Open, the best players would be “rounding into form” as the announcers liked to say, and I’d be able to get an idea who was hot this year. I needed some quiet golf time.
* * *
Probably for every parent there’s a moment when you realize that your child is really their own person. For me, that was the night Nat quit the basketball team.
I fear I was nothing more than the typical father—over-identified with my child’s athletic successes and failures. One would think that in a bastion of progressivism like Berkeley I would have evolved beyond such suburban competitiveness, and there are, unfortunately, some parents here who argue against keeping score and insist on trophies for everyone, but I’m not one of them.
When she was little, I played catch with her and shot hoops, and then when she got older and started playing on school and club teams, went to all her practices and games. At some point you look at yourself and realize you’re just a cliché, sitting in the stands screaming at the ump or the ref. But you can’t help it.
Anyway, she was a good athlete, but sooner or later the good athletes get crowded out by the better ones. Then the better ones go, and you’re left with only the best.
One night that past winter I was sitting in the stands and Nat was sitting on the bench, as she had been a lot her junior year. This time was different , though. In the past she’d always be cheering her teammates and looking engaged in the game, but that night she was slumped over staring at her sneakers.
When she came home after the game she told us she was quitting and joining the debate team, which had been courting her for several months. What made me realize she was different from me is that, in the same circumstances I would have quit the team and spent the next week brooding in bed and feeling sorry for myself. Not Natalie. She just went on to the next thing. I think they call it resilience, and I know I don’t have it. That’s how I know she is her own person.
So now, instead of sitting in the stands and cheering or videotaping her performance so we could review it at home, I was going to be a debate judge. This was not going to be an easy adjustment for me.
Early Saturday morning she came out of her room wearing a black dress that went past her knees.
“What are you wearing?” I asked, holding a cup of coffee.
“A dress,” she said.
“Is that what you’re supposed to wear?”
Martha came from the kitchen.
“Don’t criticize your daughter’s clothing,” she said. “Come on, Nat. I made you some breakfast.”
“I wasn’t criticizing, I just never saw her wearing a dress like that.”
“It’s what you’re supposed to wear,” said Natalie, stepping into the bathroom and starting to apply makeup. “Get off my case.”
“I wasn’t on your case.”
“It sounded like you were,” said Martha, agreeing with her daughter.
If I couldn’t succeed at volleying singles, I certainly wouldn’t win in doubles.
We managed to get out of the house by seven for the 8:00 am debate in San Constanzo. Mississippi John Hurt was the perfect accompaniment for an early morning drive, gentle and uplifting. Naturally the young beloved objected, so when I resisted putting on her favorite hip-hop station, she withdrew into her earbuds.
The streets of Berkeley were quiet, and we quickly got to the south side where we picked up two of her debate teammates. Mark and Lucas got in the back seat and Natalie introduced us, although being introduced as “my dad,” didn’t really introduce me.
“I’m Arthur,” I said.
“Hey,” said one of them.
“Thanks for driving,” said the other.
Lucas was tall and dark with wavy hair over his collar. Mark was shorter and fair with the sharp eyes of a cynic. They looked awkward in their dress slacks and ties, as if their mothers had dressed them.
We were close to the freeway now and traffic was light when I got on.
“Do you guys play golf?” I asked, looking in the rearview mirror.
“Daddy!” said Natalie.
“I’m just curious.”
“I want to learn,” said Mark. “Natalie said she’d teach me.”
I gave her a skeptical look.
“I play golf,” she said to my unspoken criticism. “I can show him the basics.”
It was true Natalie had played, although she’d always told me she thought it was boring. She definitely had the athletic ability, plus the flexibility that I’d lost years ago. Her swing actually looked elegant; it was just that she couldn’t make good contact with the ball. Neither Johnny, who’d given her some lessons, or I had been able to straighten out that essential problem. But I knew that what she really needed was just to play a lot, and since she thought it was boring I didn’t expect her to do that anytime soon.
“Well, Mark,” I said. “I have an extra set of clubs in the garage you can borrow anytime.”
Looking more closely at him, I thought Mark looked like a slightly less attractive version of Natalie’s boyfriend, Jordan. Did he have a crush on her? I mean, who asks a girl to teach him to play golf? That’s just the kind of thing I would have done to try to get close to a girl. But maybe I was jaded. Maybe guys were different now, though I doubted it.
The three of them talked debate strategy for a few minutes, then reverted to their default pose, looking down at their mobile phones. I pointed us inland to the land of sprawl and malls. From the fog of the East Bay we entered the Caldecott Tunnel, which bores through the hills, and exited like magic into the sunshiny suburbs. Where everything in Berkeley is crowded together, the suburbs to the east have plenty of room and they know how to use it. The inherent waste built into the planning of these cities offended my environmental values, even though I could see how the wide boulevards and plentiful parking had its appeal. And we passed three golf courses on the way. I ought to try coming out here to play sometime.
“Hey, what’s wrong with Uncle Jeremy?” said Natalie, looking up from her phone. “Lexie says he’s been acting weird.”
Alexandra was Jeremy and Connie’s younger daughter, two years behind Natalie.
“What did she say?”
“She just said he’d been weird lately.”
“Ask her what that means?”
“What do you mean ‘what that means’? It means he’s been weird. What am I supposed to ask her?”
“Ask her what ‘weird’ means.”
“Weird means weird.”
More smoke signals or whatever they were from Jeremy-land. First the call about the Hueys, then Connie’s mysterious need to talk to Martha, Jeremy’s cryptic request for help, and now Lexie. This was really bothering me. I hate not knowing what I don’t know.
“Look, just…” I glanced over at Natalie who was giving me her “don’t-even-ask” look. “Never mind,” I said.
We headed east on 24 till we reached 680—the road of traffic reports. After driving south for ten minutes, there it was.
“Look, Nat!” I tapped her shoulder. “Stone Valley Road!”
“Miraculous,” she droned, not even bothering to look up from her phone.
“No, that’s the exit they always talk about on the traffic reports.”
Everything seemed quiet, light traffic moving breezily past. I looked around, half-expecting to see bloodstains on the pavement.
“So, we’re out in traffic report land,” I said. “It’s cool.”
“No it’s not.”
I guess I couldn’t expect my daughter to share all my enthusiasms.
The high school where the debate contest was being held fit right into the suburban landscape with its sprawling parking lot and concrete campus. The driveway took you past a sports complex that would have made a Division I college proud, an astroturf football field with stands for thousands, baseball and soccer fields, lap and diving pools, and a two story training complex with floor to ceiling windows that revealed rows of stationary bikes, treadmills, and weight machines. Apparently the city of San Constanzo’s real estate tax base was thriving. As we came into the courtyard at the center of the place, it appeared to be a convention of the Young Morticians of America, hundred of teenagers dressed in black.
After checking in, receiving a name tag, bidding goodbye to my daughter, and receiving a ten-minute judging orientation, I trundled off with two other parents to a windowless classroom deep in the bowels of San Constanzo High.
Sitting in the back row with the other judges, I prepared myself for a gripping contest.
I pride myself in always being interested in the topics of the day, a regular reader of the New York Times editorial page, a watcher of presidential news conferences, and someone who even votes in off-year elections, and these student debates addressed just such timely topics. However, instead of having the vibrant feel of a clash of ideas, these exchanges resembled more the numbing arguments of lawyers arguing class action suits or politicians stumping for votes. With no passion other than the passion to win for their own self-interest, AKA, their college apps, I found myself growing numb and bored.
Recognizing, however, that this attitude would not be appreciated by any of the concerned parties, debate organizers, participants, and fellow judges, I restrained my usual insightful commentary and just did my job.
The time dragged, as it will under such trying circumstances. After judging two rounds, a lunch tour of the local fast food chains provided a certain comic relief for myself and the BHS Debate Team. These All-American eateries have trouble getting a foothold in food-snobby Berkeley. The post-prandial session found me dipping close to unconsciousness, so when my final judgment was passed, I felt some relief. In fact a great deal of relief.
Of course, I wasn’t judging my daughter’s debates, so, coming out into the bright sunshine of the concrete courtyard I squinted and turned on my phone, texting Natalie to find out where she was. Immediately she shot back.
We won! We’re by the library.
There she stood holding an enormous trophy surmounted by a man in a suit leaning on a lectern.
“First place for our division!” she exclaimed.
Mark and Lucas stood beside her beaming.
“Fantastic!” Not knowing how debaters celebrated I slapped her a high five and shook the boys’ hands.
A long dissertation followed on the failings of their suburban opponents that came down to “they were programmed debate-drones who couldn’t think on their feet.” This was contrasted with an elaboration of the cleverness and imagination of Berkeley High students whose diverse and freewheeling upbringing had prepared them for the pressure and spontaneity of the rough and tumble debate world.
Now I noticed there was another text on my phone from Martha.
Don’t forget CC end of year dinner tonight.
Of course I’d forgot. The biannual (or was it semi-annual? Anyway, they happened twice a year) Clark College banquets, at Christmas and at graduation were events to forget, if you could. Not that I don’t enjoy eating and schmoozing with a bunch of academics whose names and fields I’ve forgotten (again) and listening to a cover band play the lamest hits of the 80’s—or was it the 70’s? You could never tell. I’d rather visit the dentist.
But one didn’t deny the beloved in her time of need. After all, what is an English professor without her loyal partner? I know there must be a clever answer to that question, but I’m not going to delve into it right now. Let’s just leave it rhetorical.
“We better go,” I said to my debate prodigies. I pointed at my phone. “Dinner plans.”
We dropped off Mark and Lucas on the way. Natalie still held the trophy.
“Does UCSD have a debate team?” I asked.
“Yeah, they’re pretty good,” she said.
“Why doesn’t Jordan do debate?”
“Have you met Jordan?” I knew this was sarcastic and rhetorical, but saying hello to a teenage boy who is picking up or dropping off your daughter doesn’t give you much opportunity for character assessment. Even though I had technically met him, I knew nothing significant about him.
“What?” This seemed like an ambiguous enough response to evoke some information.
“Jordan’s not a big talker. More of a doer.”
I didn’t want to know what doings this referred to.
“Why doesn’t he come to your debates?”
She shook her head. “He had baseball practice.”
This rang a bell. Infielder. Slap hitter. Maybe I had had a conversation with him.
“SD is recruiting him.”
We’d pulled up in front of the house, and although this seemed to open a whole new potential line of conversation, she was out the door of the car before I could initiate it. The front door opened, and the beloved beamed.
“Congratulations!” She hugged her daughter and the two of them went in the house, closing the door behind them as though I were just the chauffeur dropping her off.
* * *
The Clark College campus is “nestled in the East Bay foothills amid groves of redwood and views of majestic Mt. Diablo,” to quote their website. In fact, it is pretty beautiful, and beats the Cal neighborhood of runaways and homeless junkies who infest Telegraph Avenue. With the days at their longest, we arrived in sunshine and went into the Murphy Center, the conference building near the gym that they use for awards ceremonies and banquets. In the lobby we were met by a tall, slim man in priestly garb that I was sure I was supposed to recognize.
“Hello, Brother Tom,” said Martha. “You remember my husband Arthur?”
“Why yes,” said the Brother, taking hold of my hand. “How’s the golf game, Art?”
People like this drive me crazy. How the hell does he remember the hobbies of the spouses of a couple hundred faculty members when I can’t even remember his name?
“Not bad,” I said, trying to smile as he folded his other hand over our two.
“And the environmental work?”
What, did he check my Facebook profile before the banquet for heaven’s sake?
“Good,” he said and gave my hand one last squeeze. “Protecting the earth is God’s work.”
I couldn’t disagree with him there.
As we headed toward the room that held hors d’oeuvres and cocktails I whispered to Martha, “How does he know all that?”
“Don’t you remember sitting with him at the Christmas dinner last year? I thought you guys bonded that night. Remember he told you how his father was a big golfer? He once played in a tournament with Ben Hogan?”
“Yeah, I guess that does sound kind of familiar.” I glanced over my shoulder trying to bring back some fragment of that previous meal. “Was it the Texas Open?”
“You’re amazing,” said my wife shaking her head, and I didn’t think it was a compliment.
I did manage to remember a few of Martha’s colleagues, and I usually tried to stay close to them as the evening unfolded. A table in the middle of the room was stacked with cheese and crackers. On closer inspection, I saw the cheese squares were laid out in the shape of the Clark College “CC” logo. There we found Andrea, Martha’s comrade-in-arms in the English department trench warfare, the battles over English major requirements and the Canon, the multicultural insurgencies, and the grade inflation skirmishes. Older than Martha by eight or ten years, her husband had apparently entered the emeritus stage, which meant he didn’t have to show up for these dos.
“Arthur, how nice to see you,” said Andrea.
“I bet you say that to all the faculty husbands.”
Martha tapped my arm. “I need to talk to Fred Costello,” she said, and left me in the hands of Andrea.
I grabbed a passing Clark student who was carrying trays of drinks.
“Could I get a sparkling water?” These events demanded that you have a beverage in your hands, and, although I wasn’t really tempted to drink anymore, sometimes it seemed like a glass of wine wouldn’t be a bad idea. So, best to get something non-alcoholic quick.
I stuffed some crackers and cheese in my mouth, and too quickly asked Andrea, “Who’s Fred Costello?” The resulting spray from my mouth barely missed her. “Sorry, sorry,” I said, waving a napkin in her direction.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Your aim is off.”
The waiter brought a tiny cup of sparkling water that I downed in one long drink. Even if I didn’t chug beer anymore, I still had the habit of drinking quickly.
“He’s the new Assistant Provost for Making Students Happy.”
“The what?” I asked.
“That’s not what they call it, but that’s what he is.”
“What are the qualifications for that job?”
“I think he was a cheerleader at UCLA.”
“Come on, Andrea.”
“Seriously, they just keep creating layers of administrative positions at six figures while they stop hiring tenure track professors and use adjuncts they can pay McDonald’s wages.”
“Well, I can see you and Martha have been reading from the same playbook.”
“Is that a sports metaphor?”
“You got a problem with sports?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Every time the basketball team gets in the NCAA tournament our applications skyrocket.”
I was used to Martha’s cynicism about academia, but hearing it from Andrea it felt even more bitter. At one time I had harbored dreams of my own academic career, but being married to a professor had cured me of that particular fantasy. I suppose that’s the way it is with most things: when you looked behind the curtain, the romance was lost. And behind this curtain, the dignified academics seemed more like five-year-olds fighting for supremacy of the sand box.
“How’s Natalie’s college search going?” asked Andrea.
“Okay, I guess,” I said. “She’s talking about going to San Diego because her boyfriend wants to go there.”
“Oh, god,” she said. “Apparently your wife hasn’t done a very good job of teaching her feminist principles.”
“Why can’t I teach feminist principles?”
“Good point. Why haven’t you taught her not to follow boys around?”
“Believe me, I’ve tried. The only man she’s supposed to follow around is me.”
“That’s not quite what I meant.”
Martha came back shaking her head. “The students aren’t happy, and you know what that means.”
“The faculty must suffer,” said Andrea.
Martha took a glass of white wine from a passing waiter’s tray. Unlike me, Martha could drink, though her tendency to leave her first glass half drunk was distressing to someone like me who in my drinking days thought a non-empty glass was a crime. I’d been known to circulate through a frat party polishing off people’s unfinished drinks. A few mouthfuls of ashes and cigarette butts was a small price to pay for all the free alcohol.
“Well, at least I’ve got a new character for my novel,” said Martha, tipping back her wine.
“That’s too easy,” said Andrea. “Satirizing Fred Costello is like cheating.”
“I’m all for that,” I told Andrea. “Apparently this novel-writing thing isn’t as easy as it sounds.”
“How is it going?” asked Andrea.
“Don’t you know you’re never supposed to ask a writer that?” I said. “Even I know that.”
“Shut up, Art,” said Martha. “I apologize for my rude husband.”
“I learned a long time ago not to take anything he says seriously.”
“Very wise,” said Martha. “But to answer your question, I was hoping to get away for a few days before we go back east, try to get back into it.”
This was news to me, but I always tried to support the beloved’s artistic aspirations. The novel was in her top five Most Important Things. Clearly Natalie was number one, as she was for me, but my own spot was less clear. One didn’t inquire about one’s place, but just took comfort in knowing you’d made the list—as far as you knew.
Soon they herded us in to dinner in the larger banquet hall, lit low for the occasion. With no assigned seating, Martha and Andrea snagged a table and motioned to other liberal arts types to join us. God forbid we wind up with one of the business professors. The floral centerpieces spread so high and wide as to block the view of the other side of the table, and petals were falling onto the breadbaskets and butter plates.
The food was actually pretty good, a choice of fresh salmon or tri-tip with steamed vegetables that weren’t ruined, and by the time the death-by-chocolate dessert was finished I’d been lulled into a pleasantly soporific state, while chatting with a wife whose name I hadn’t gotten and had waited too long to ask for a repeat. In any case, she did a good job of seeming fascinated with my tales of environmental design, and that was good enough for me. Getting through nights like this was essentially about finding people who were either willing to talk or listen long enough for the time to pass.
The band started to play around the time the coffee was being served. For once they were actually pretty competent, I thought, and so I asked Martha to dance to “Burning Down the House.” She’s a good dancer and likes it when I’m willing to get on the floor with her. Always wise to do the little things for the beloved, I’ve found.
When they went into a slow song, we shrugged and smiled at each other. As we moved somewhat randomly around the floor in something close to time with the music, Martha whispered in my ear.
“I lied to you.”
“What?” I held her away and looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“Connie,” she said. “And Jeremy. She did tell me what he’s upset about.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I know how you are.”
“How am I?”
She ignored this question.
“You know how Jeremy feels about the beach house. I mean, his family has owned it forever. That view and the dunes. They’ve been trying to get it declared a conservancy for years.”
Jeremy was the only son of an only daughter of a Washington, D.C. publishing magnate. He’d inherited the house on a bluff, really just a sand dune, over the Atlantic when his divorced mother died a few years earlier. Built before the first World War, the place had the elegance and sprawling comfort of that earlier era. With a wraparound porch, bedrooms by the handful, and dining for twenty, it nonetheless had an informal beach feel, the bare wood floors always scattered with sand, a jigsaw puzzle invariably going on a card table in the living room. The broad lawn was big enough for full family softball, volleyball, or badminton.
“So, what’s the problem?”
“It’s the dunes.”
“What about the dunes?”
“Someone’s bought them.”
“What?! I thought they had an agreement with Blenheim Beach to declare them off limits for development.”
“The Planning Commission reneged on the deal.”
“Oh, Christ.” I separated from her now and walked off the dance floor. The table was covered with half-drunk glasses of red and white, and I almost felt like draining one, but not quite. I took a drink of water.
The band broke into a spirited version of “Walking on Sunshine.” I was ready to leave the party.
Martha came up to the table and shouted something over the music.
“What?” I shouted back.
“There’s something else?”
“The people who bought it?”
Now I understood the extent of Jeremy’s problems and my role in solving them. Although I presumed that my many appealing qualities as a human being, including my almost-single-digit handicap, made me a dear brother-in-law to Jeremy, it was apparent now that my expertise in the realm of environmental disputes made me the clear leader in the non-blood-related-relation category at the present time.
With the helium let out of whatever party balloon may have been holding us aloft through the evening, Martha and I made quick work of our goodbyes and endured a silent ride home. My muddled feelings of anger and frustration, toward Martha, Connie, and Jeremy for not giving me the facts sooner, and toward the Hueys for their bull-meets-china-shop treatment of the environment, left me stewing.
And stew I did into the wee hours. I kept going back and forth on calling Jeremy, but my don’t-want-to-get-involved side won out over my come-to-the-rescue side.
The thing is, that house and that land meant something to me, too. It was the first place I’d met and been welcomed by Martha’s family when we started dating. That week on the beach was my real introduction to an East Coast summer, and I found it spellbinding in a way my beloved California never could be. Here summer seems to appear randomly in October or March or January for a week of hot, dry weather and Santa Ana winds, but there it’s a real thing, something that follows (or at least followed, before the new climate arrived) age-old patterns on the calendar that are echoed in human rituals on the beach and in the water.
When Martha and I married during her sabbatical a few years later, Jeremy invited us to take the place for our honeymoon. Those autumnal walks on the beach, romantic nights by the fire, and hours of lovemaking left an indelible mark on me, a sense that the house held some magic, was somehow an integral part of my love for Martha and the bond that held us together. The idea that the wild dunes between the house and the sea would become the site of a condo development horrified me personally like few ideas could. And my professional principles were equally horrified by the idea of developing such a fragile piece of coastline, a place that struggled to recover from each winter’s punishing storms.
Jeremy must have known that his refuge wouldn’t survive the coming era of climate disruption, but he wouldn’t talk about that possibility. And as much as I knew he was living in a bubble of wealth and privilege—not to mention denial–I couldn’t really blame him for trying to hold on to and protect a place that meant so much to him and his family. And me.
Such thoughts have a circular and reproductive quality, and when aroused in the deep, quiet hours of the night when nothing can interrupt them, there is little chance for sleep. Thus I got up before the light and drove to the office. At least I could get some work done on the Dilworth problem.
My hope for some quiet, meditative time at my desk was immediately dashed by the site of a single light in the corner of the office. And who had beat me in this Monday dawn but Brian. I sought to read the look he gave me as the office door clicked shut behind me. Sheepish? Guilty? Anxious? None-of-the-above? He could have been rubbing his face because he was tired, but it seemed more like he was trying to squeeze something unpleasant out of his brain.
“Hey Brian,” I said, flicking on the overheads.
“Arthur,” he said, standing up and moving towards me. “I didn’t expect to see you this early.”
“Is there coffee?”
“Yeah, let me get you some,” and he moved toward the kitchen.
“No, Brian,” I said, waving him back. “I can get my own coffee.”
One advantage of Brian’s advance arrival was the full and fresh pot of coffee that awaited me. Never having quite mastered the new machine we’d acquired, I was grateful to find that Brian’s competence was superior to mine. As I moved toward my office, mug in hand, I saw Brian appearing to struggle to speak. While he raised his arms and his mouth seemed to move, no words followed.
“Is there something?” I asked.
“Yeah… I…,” he stuttered. “If you could…”
Now I noticed his wrinkled pants, torn t-shirt and flat, dirty hair. Usually a spiffy clean type, his blond hair tastefully moussed, this disheveled look
was not the Brian I knew. More in the realm of a hot-shot nerd than a stuttering one, normally he was more likely to intimidate me than be intimidated. Of course, knowing what I knew, it seemed more likely than not that this diminution of his hot-shottedness was related to the Dilworth IS.
Like Trevor, his desk was outfitted with the double-wide monitor system favored by my staff. His laptop, on the side of the desk, was closed.
“I need to show you something,” he said, pulling a chair over from a neighboring desk for me to sit on. “It’s bad.”
I knew where we were going, but I didn’t know how we were going to get there. And that was the question, wasn’t it?
“I can’t believe I did this,” he said, starting to scroll through what I assumed were the Dilworth files.
I have to admit that, shameful as it might be, I was taking a certain pleasure in seeing his humiliation. Brian was the type of employee that was so talented you couldn’t regret hiring him, but whose ego made you want to keep him in a separate room.
“When I first came up with the results on the Dilworth IS I was shocked. Well, maybe not shocked, but surprised. I went over them again and again and kept getting the same results—you’ve seen it, right?”
“I mean, after a while I just accepted it, and then I thought, ‘This is great,’ you know? I mean it will save them a ton of money. What did you think?”
“Yeah,” now he clicked on the other monitor, and there it was, the text file Trevor had found. “I don’t know how I missed this. I mean, I do know, but it never should have happened. This data report on the salinization of Hayward groundwater from the project shows we—they—have a big problem. It’ll mean they’ll need a huge filtration system or massive drainage and damming that they aren’t prepared to provide.”
I tried to act as if this was all news for me. He seemed genuine in his apology or whatever this was—his admission–but I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that he’d gotten word we had spotted his error, whether from Hauser or someone else at Dilworth, or from one of the government entities, and now he was trying to cover himself.
“Shit, Brian,” I said, looking closely at the screens. “How did you miss this?”
He looked away, running his hand through his blond hair.
“It’s no excuse, but I’ve been distracted, to put it mildly.”
“What’s going on?”
“My wife had a miscarriage. We’d been trying to get pregnant for the past year, and then she did, and then.”
“Oh, no,” I wanted to put a hand on his shoulder, but that didn’t feel right, not here in the office. “I’m sorry. How is she doing?”
“She’s okay,” he said. “I mean, she’s fine physically. She’s just depressed. We both are.”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said. “Is that the first time she’s been pregnant?”
“Well, that’s really common, you know. Martha lost her first.”
“I know. That’s what the doctors told us. So, we’ll try again as soon as Ellie’s up to it.”
“Good,” I stood up. “You want some more coffee.”
“No,” he said. “No thanks.”
“Well, listen,” I said. “Don’t worry about the Dilworth thing. I’ll talk to Eddie. They had to know this was a possible outcome. Knowing them, they probably have some backup plan or insurance or something.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, we’ve all done it.” Which wasn’t quite true, but close enough.
* * *
As I retreated to my office, the despair of the boss, the one responsible for everything, swept over me. Like a twelve-year-old taking final exams in the last week of school, I gazed longingly at the sunny day just outside my window.
One learns on the links, as in life, not to give up too easily. With eighteen holes to play, there are many chances at redemption. However, on certain rounds I have found myself completing nine holes with a score that was so far from my mean or median or whatever the statistical term is, that I took the better part of valor and went home. Tearing up my scorecard, the distress that came with such poor play would quickly be replaced with a sense of freedom. Now I could catch up on some long-delayed project like cleaning out my closet.
It was this wish to abandon the field of play, that is, my job, my employment, my business, my very company itself that crept up on me even as the effects of a second cup of coffee began to rattle my nerves. There’s something freeing about quitting.
Memories of placid days high above the Sierra forest seeped into my consciousness. Footloose, and all that.
Of course, all that was gone for a man with a wife and a college-bound daughter and a mortgage. Quitting would require something more in the realm of change of identity, plastic surgery, and a Witness Protection Program. One could dream.
Barring all that, as Bell of Bell Environmental Design, it was incumbent on me to get on the phone and start making enemies. First up, Eddie Hauser at Dilworth. Without giving him the miscarriage detail, I just let him know that Brian had been stressed over some personal issues and had made an honest mistake.
“Yeah, I didn’t think he was the type to commit fraud,” he said. “But knowing my boss he’ll want to sue.”
“You can’t sue me for making a mistake on an Initial Study. Besides, we haven’t even submitted it yet. This is just a courtesy heads up.”
“He likes to sue people.”
Neither the City of Hayward nor the County of Alameda knew about the issues I’d talked to Eddie about on the golf course, but they would want to know what was coming their way. A bad IS meant a full-blown EIR would be necessary, and, as I believe I’ve mentioned, the EIR meant much more time and time meant much more money, and much more money meant angry people.
And so it went, down the line. Some blustered, others mourned; some sputtered, while others made demands. Whatever qualified a day to be red letter, this was not one.
And then there was Trevor.
“He’s lying,” was his immediate response.
“And what do you base that on?” I asked.
He’d closed my office door as soon as he got the news. Uninvited, he pulled a chair up to my desk.
“Of course he’s lying,” he said. “Brian is too smart to make a mistake like this. He’s not an intern. The guy’s one of the sharpest minds in the company. I just don’t buy it.”
The idea that one would purchase a belief suddenly struck me as odd. Why pay for it when you could have it for free? Clearly my mind was drifting this morning. Anything to escape the storm of recrimination coming at me.
Should I tell him about the miscarriage? Would he claim that Brian had made that up, too? Then again, could he have? I mean, who was going to call up his wife and ask? Not me. But believing the man capable of exploiting his wife’s reproductive tragedy to save his career seemed to stretch credulity. Not easily purchased.
But, now that Trevor had sent my wheels a-spinning, the thought occurred that, on the other hand, he might be using the actuality of a miscarriage as an excuse for the non-actuality of making a mistake. I wanted to share none of this with Trevor.
After he left the office, I called in Emily and filled her in on what had been happening.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” she asked.
“There was no point,” I said. “There wasn’t anything you could do.”
“Well, what do you want from me now?” While a seemingly innocent question, her tone implied, “You messed up and now you come crawling to me.”
“Nothing special,” I said. “I just wanted you to be in the loop as we move forward.”
She looked out at the office. “Typical,” she said. “Those guys…”
“You don’t want my analysis right now.”
I wondered if I did, but how could I say I didn’t after that statement?
“Try me,” I said. I sat down and pointed for her to do the same.
“Okay,” she said, settling in. “This is what I think: when everything is more or less handed to you early in life, when you do finally encounter opposition, you don’t know how to handle it. Maybe you figure it out and grow, or maybe, if you’re not the most ethical person and you feel entitled, you look for shortcuts.”
“So you agree with Trevor that Brian’s lying?” Here I knew I was cornering her. Emily got along with most people, but I knew she didn’t like Trevor.
“I didn’t say that,” she said. “I just think there’s more than meets the eye.”
She hesitated before answering me.
“Okay,” she said. ”For one, Brian thinks he’s a hot-shot, right?”
I nodded, not because I agreed with her, but just because I wanted to see where she was going with this.
“Naturally Trevor’s the one that finds his mistake,” she said. “Because he’s vying for hot-shot himself. It’s not because they’re white, but when you come from that kind of privilege, you tend to lack humility.”
I wasn’t surprised by her line of thinking, and although I thought she usually put too much weight on diversity issues, her description of their personalities fit my own analysis, so naturally I approved.
“And so,” I said. “Lacking humility one tends to make mistakes?”
Since I hadn’t told her about Brian’s wife’s miscarriage, she wasn’t operating with full knowledge of the situation.
“I think there’s more to it than that,” I said.
“Sure, but…,” I could see her weighing how much to say to her white, privileged boss.
“Let’s postpone the staff meeting this morning,” I said getting up from my desk. “I need to get out of here for a little while.”
“Okay,” she said. “How much of this should I tell the rest of the office?”
“Just that we’re revising the Initial Study,” I said. “No need to get into details.”
We walked out to the main office, and I told Caroline, the admin, what I’d decided.
“Okay, boss,” she said. “I’ll let everyone know.”
I could feel the eyes of the whole office following me walking toward the door. It was like standing on the first tee at the Masters and trying to hit your first drive. Like my wife’s golf sonar, they could pick up the tension emanating from my office even if they didn’t know what it was about. Instead of saying anything, I took the coward’s way out and looked at my cell phone as I pushed the door open. Let Emily handle them.
I needed to call Martha.
In states of consuming distress, it’s quite remarkable that one can become completely divorced from the sights and sounds surrounding you. In the short stroll over to 4th Street, the chi-chi shopping district near my office, I heard no cars, saw no people, and essentially sleep-walked past the train station and restaurants, only coming out of my haze when the alluring objects in the Apple store woke me up. Not being in need of any new devices, I managed to cross the street away from that electronic seduction to the gourmet Mexican restaurant where Martha sat patiently awaiting my arrival.
We ordered at the counter and took the little flag with our number on it to a corner table.
“Do you remember Julia Butterfly Hill?” I asked her after our food arrived. She was still in her tennis skirt after a morning set with Andrea.
“The girl who lived up in that tree?” She had ordered a tostada, although she never actually ate the tortilla, just nibbling at the vegetables, beans, cheese, and chicken on top.
“What would you think about living like that?”
“Is it really that bad, Art?”
I told her about Brian’s revelation and his explanation and all my doubts and confusion. Was Brian lying? Was Emily right that Trevor was trying to undercut Brian? And was there something else she was holding back?
“How far along was Ellie?” Martha asked me.
The fact that Martha could remember the names of all the employees partners while I wasn’t even sure who had a partner seemed like just one more failure on my part.
“I’m not even sure she was pregnant.” I told her about Trevor’s suspicions.
“Oh, come on, Art,” she said, patting her lips with her napkin. “You can’t really believe that.”
“Well, Trevor made a good case…”
“Trevor is an asshole. Pardon me for saying.”
“He’s a hell of an engineer.”
“That doesn’t make him a decent human being.”
After lunch we drifted out onto the little plaza where a blues singer was playing for tips. We found a table in the shade and sat down.
“Natalie texted me from school this morning,” said Martha.
“Are they allowed to text during school hours?”
Martha gave me the don’t-start-a-rant look.
“She wants to invite Jordan to the beach.”
“Oh, come on,” I sat up. “That’s why I wanted to go to the beach, to get away from the kid.”
“That’s not why we’re going,” she said. “And you know that.”
“Well,” I retreated sheepishly. “That’s one reason.”
“I’m going to get an iced coffee. Do you want something?” asked Martha.
The bluesman launched into “Wang Dang Doodle,” and I started thinking about Automatic Slim and Razor Totin’ Jim. Those two would know what to do in this situation.
Martha came back with a cookie to share.
“You need to change your attitude about Jordan,” she said. “Do you really think you’re going to convince Natalie not to like him?”
“I can try.”
“You’re wasting your time.”
I slumped further into my chair.
“Listen,” she said. “I think you should take him along with you and Nat to the A’s game. Weren’t you going to get tickets?”
When either the Red Sox or Yankees came to town, I usually took Nat. We’d been going to A’s game’s together since she was a toddler, and the teams from the Evil East were our favorite to boo.
“But those are our games…”
“You’re whining,” said Martha. “What I’m saying is, things are changing with her, and if you don’t get on the bandwagon, you’ll be completely left out. Take Jordan. The three of you will have fun. He’s a good kid.”
As usual Martha’s logic was irrefutable. With the series just a week away, I opened an app on my phone and bought three tickets online. Second deck behind home plate. Nat’s and my favorite place. Hopefully Jordan was a third-base-line guy and wouldn’t like the seats.
Martha went home, and with the prospect of Trevor and Brian, not to mention Dilworth and Hayward awaiting me, I chose, instead to explore the industrial remains of West Berkeley, strolling down by the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the freeway. It reminded me of a Ginsburg poem I read in some English class at Santa Cruz. He lived here in the fifties, and I guess he liked to walk around the broken down neighborhoods and write broken down poems. Depressing.
I put on my earbuds and shuffled through the music until I landed on Miles Davis. His moaning trumpet fit my mood.
When my phone rang, a call from the office, I rejected it, turned the ringer off, and got back to the jazz.
These old warehouses and factories were like a lost frontier, echoes of a pre-tech world where people made things here. Not that I was nostalgic for high polluting businesses that provided menial, dead-end jobs, but there was something in the crude, utilitarian buildings that seemed authentic, unpretentious. In fact, it was one such structure that Bell E.D. had refurbished into our own sleek, modern capsule.
This derelict landscape was perfect for the kind of morbid reflection I liked to indulge in when falling into melancholy. At such times I tended to go back looking for first causes. I realized that I had violated one of my core principles in hiring both Brian and Trevor: you hire the person not the skill set. Dazzled by their resumes, their talents, and their confidence, I’d hired their talents. The thing is, you have to live with these people, they’re part of your life. While people can learn new skills and improve their knowledge, their personalities rarely change. And Brian, with his smooth answers for everything (until his latest snafu) and Trevor with his critique of everyone but himself, didn’t have personalities that I enjoyed. For some time, Emily had been my buffer, but now the buffer had been breached.
I believe it was one of my professors in graduate school who said that most people didn’t choose their professions or their path, but just stumbled into something. And, while I’d always cared deeply about the earth, founding and running a business was never my ambition. It just seemed like the next logical thing to do at the time. I hadn’t considered the fact that my temperament is not particularly well suited to managing people, nor do I thrive under stress like the typical CEO. So, when faced with messy situations like that with B and T, I tend to fall back on my escapist tendencies.
I wondered, what would happen if I dissolved Bell E.D.? No, what about selling it? There must be some value in the name, mustn’t there? Probably not.
So, let’s say I just quit. What happens? Natalie has to go to Clark College because we can’t afford to pay for school; Martha is disgusted and divorces me; Natalie won’t speak to me; I fall into despair and start drinking again; I wind up living on Telegraph Avenue with the other homeless; I never see Natalie or Martha again, and I die a sad, lonely death of hyperthermia under the freeway.
Working up a deep, gooey batch of self-pity, I looked at my watch and realized there was an AA Meeting that had just started five minutes from here. Turning away from the railroad tracks and my homeless life, I jogged over to my car, keeping an eye out so as not to run into any Bell employees. As I walked into the meeting, someone was reading from the AA Big Book.
“Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today,” I heard as I sat down in the back.
Well, I wasn’t sure it was the answer to all my problems, but maybe some of them. What exactly did I need to accept today?
The meeting was in a little cabin on a side street in South Berkeley, the participants kind a cross section, some men and women in business suits, a couple bikers, some tattooed kids in their twenties, a guy who was probably mentally ill and homeless sitting in the back row mumbling to himself—the image of my future self. The mood was friendly but serious.
I found my thoughts drifting off until one of the businessmen raised his hand and said, “Hi, my name is Hugh, and I’m a drunk.”
Now I was pulled out of the Bell E.D. issues and back to the Hueys. This often seemed to happen at meetings, that I wouldn’t really listen to the people sharing, but just think about my own stuff instead. It probably wasn’t the most mindful behavior, but it seemed to help me, to give me time to work some things out. Right now, though, it felt like a tennis match in my head.
With the Huey’s buying Jeremy’s view, they could only have one thing in mind: development. It was hard to believe that with the fragility of the dunes in Blenheim Beach any city would risk letting someone put up condos on that land, but these tiny villes hungered for tax dollars, and a company like Huey Homes Inc. could make it very appealing to bend the environmental rules a tad—especially if they made some strategic “contributions” as well. This was obviously why Jeremy was looking to me for help. So, instead of a relaxing couple weeks at the beach and a jolly club tourney, I’d be caught in another nasty fight. All I needed to add to my cheery state of mind.
My ruminations were interrupted when I heard someone say, “I used to wonder if I had the ‘capacity to be honest,’ but finally I realized that was just an excuse to keep relapsing.” This was a woman named Barb I’d known for years, a lawyer who almost lost her license to practice after a string of DUIs. Now she had five years sober. She’d been quoting a line from the Big Book that said that even if you had some mental disorder you could still get sober if you could be honest.
I remembered my own sense of freedom when I got sober and stopped lying and concealing things from people. Then I remembered skulking out of the office a couple hours before and resolved to go back and let everyone in on the Dilworth IS doings. That would at least get one stressor off my shoulders.
When the meeting ended, I sent a text to Caroline.
Full staff meeting. 2pm.
A moment later she wrote back.
You got it, Boss.
* * *
On the short drive back to the office, I checked the traffic report. After one o’clock and the metering lights still on at the Bay Bridge. Essentially that meant rush hour never ended anymore.
I wasn’t as worried about Dilworth as I was about Trevor and Brian. There must be some bad blood between them that I didn’t know about. I suppose it could be simple professional jealousy. That was the sort of thing I couldn’t abide. When your friend sinks a thirty-foot putt (by pure luck, of course), you high five him. You don’t sulk your way to the next tee. Even the professionals celebrate each other’s holes-in-one, and those guys are competing against each other for money! Why should Trevor care if Brian was a hot shot.
In fact, the question answered itself. When Trevor arrived, he arrived as the proverbial golden boy at Bell E.D. For almost five years, he was the hotshot. And then along came Brian.
I found everyone ready for me sitting on the garment table on our west wall. My lectern had been dragged out of the corner and was facing the table.
Perhaps there is nothing so tedious as a full staff meeting, except, perhaps, a description of a full staff meeting. For that reason I will simply give you a summary of what I said:
- Everyone makes mistakes
- Brian made a mistake
- Brian’s been under some personal pressure
- Brian is forgiven
- We were all going to have to pull together, and hopefully Dilworth wouldn’t fire us (I didn’t actually say this last part, but they all knew it was what we were facing.)
Trevor obviously wanted more from me, and given the mumbling and grumbling afterward, others presumably did as well. Tough. I had to keep the company on track, and I didn’t have any more time for this nonsense.
Impatience is one of my failings. Waiting for the foursome in front of me to finish putting drives me mad. Invariably I duffed my next shot. The repercussions of such a shot, though, were trivial. Not so, I would soon find out, when the same impatience was applied to running a company.
The Oakland/Alameda County Coliseum, home (as of now) of the Oakland Athletics and the Oakland Raiders, both of whom want to move, is (as of now) the oldest active stadium in the MLB or the NFL. Built in the 1970s, the time of multi-use bowls, it’s now put up as an example of the worst kind of stadium design. One can’t fault the impulse of creating sports venues that would be used more than 8 (for football) or 81 (for baseball) days a year (not counting potential, but for these teams, largely illusory, playoff games). At the time millions, and today up to a billion dollars could be spent on a massive edifice that would be left empty and unused most of the time.
But Nat and I love it anyway. The first time she was there was when the Yankees beat our A’s in the playoffs in 2000. Nat was 2, but she still brags to her friends about being there. That was the year we won 20 in a row and Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball about us.
As Lewis documented, the A’s have had to make the most of a small payroll, partly because they don’t have a stadium that attracts fans (see above). They also have to compete with the upscale team across the Bay whose fancy-schmancy ballpark went up in that same playoff year and where the sushi stand probably brings in more cash for the team than the entire season ticket sales for the A’s.
But let us not linger over these economic issues—sports is already too dominated by dollars. The issue at hand was this early June matchup between the formerly cursed Red Sox and the underdog Home Team. Having acquiesced to the beloved’s suggestion to make room for the young beloved’s boyfriend in the traditional Father/Daughter trip to the ballpark (one of a half-dozen yearly visits), Natalie and I set out on BART with the plan to meet the boy at the MacArthur Station, where he could transfer from his train. Decked out in our team regalia, we boarded only to find pockets of red interspersed with the green and gold of the locals. Bostonians, like New Yorkers, have flocked over the years to the Bay Area which provides them with the culture and progressive values of their hometown without the snow.
However, their shorts and tee-shirts betrayed their ignorance of our weather patterns. Locals know that an evening in June is not much different from an evening in November. Nat and I had our hoodies layered over longsleeves, and she carried a giant green and gold fleece blanket adorned with the team logo.
While the No. 4 train to the Bronx is less than welcoming to anyone of a Red Sox persuasion, and someone wearing pinstripes within fifty miles of Fenway Park is treated like a criminal, we in the Bay Area are more civilized and merely avoid making eye contact with these interlopers.
While I’d met the boyfriend before, this encounter provided an opportunity to see him in a more natural environment than hellos and goodbyes at the front door. I discreetly turned away when he kissed my daughter rather more vigorously than I would expect in public, a sight that a father should never have to endure. When I looked back I gained a positive impression from his A’s hoodie, which was very stylish. Made of some shiny material, what caught my attention was that the traditional gold lettering against a green background had been reversed. The effect was pleasing.
“Where’d you get that hoodie?” I asked him as he boarded at MacArthur.
“Dad!” said Natalie. “Don’t hassle him.” I noted that while one hand gripped the overhead bar, the other held the boy’s hand.
“No, it’s okay,” said Jordan. “My grandma gave it to me for Christmas.”
“Nice.” I ran my hand over the material. “What is this stuff?”
“Some kind of synthetic, I think.”
We then launched into a discussion of the team, its chances in the AL West, and reviewed all the things we hated about the Red Sox. In order to test the depth of his knowledge I asked him about a player who had just come up from the minors, a power hitting first-baseman named Bateman.
“He can’t hit lefties,” said Jordan. “But he should be an effective part of the platoon, which is how Melvin likes to stack the team, anyway.”
“Exactly,” I said, giving Nat an approving nod. My further questioning resulted in similarly lucid responses. Clearly, the boy was well-informed and his opinions were well-founded; that is to say, he agreed with pretty much everything I said.
The press of fans grew progressively dense at each stop, and by the time we arrived at the Coliseum, we had to squeeze off the train and march shoulder to shoulder down the stairs to the station. The pedestrian bridge across the Amtrak line was populated with counterfeit t-shirt and ballcap hawkers, while a man in a wheelchair with a saxophone sputtered out an off-key version of “Take Me Out To the Ballgame.” I dropped a dollar into his bucket.
“My dad always does that,” said Jordan.
“Sounds like a compassionate soul,” I said. “Does he play golf?”
“Dad!” said Natalie, then turned to her boyfriend. “My father is like obsessed with golf.”
“I wouldn’t say obsessed…”
“Yeah,” said Jordan. “He’s really into it.”
With the cold stare of my daughter gazing back at me, I decided not to pursue this to its logical conclusion, and in any case, with the challenge of navigating the crowd, conversation tended to be challenging. Discussion of a potential round with the father and the boyfriend could wait. Especially since the latter had not yet passed whatever test I was subjecting him to at this moment. I wasn’t exactly clear about that question myself.
Although everyone calls the stadium The Coliseum, various companies keep buying the naming rights, so that the enormous sign above the center field bleachers keeps changing. The current iteration, “Hype Coliseum,” refers, apparently to a new helicopter ride-sharing app. Hype indeed.
Only the TV and radio announcers use the moniker, as they are required by contract to do so.
With the days near their longest, the sun still touched the outfield as we settled into our second tier, behind home plate seats.
“Great seats,” declared Jordan. “This is where my dad and I always like to sit.”
Another point for the boyfriend.
We’d arrived early so as to catch the end of batting practice, but unfortunately that only provided us with the dispiriting site of the Sox massive designated hitter pounding ball after ball into the right fields stands, much to the delight of his red-shirted fans who gathered at the wall and battled each other to catch one of the souvenirs.
“Who’s hungry?” asked Jordan. “My mom gave me money to buy dinner.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” I said, making a gesture toward the wallet in my back pocket.
“It’s not a problem,” he said. “We usually get cheesesteaks.”
I looked at Natalie who smiled as she raised her eyebrows. That was exactly what we’d been getting ever since we decided the hot dogs were below par. Had she set this all up, making sure Jordan would say and do all the right things to win me over? One could never put such tricks past her.
Once we were digging into our food, I decided it was time to broach more serious topics.
“So, Jordan,” I asked. “Where are you applying to college?”
Instead of the expected “Dad!” the young beloved just fell back on the icy stare. An equally ineffective way to curtail my inquiries. Maybe she actually wanted to hear this.
“Uh, well my dad went to UCSD, so I’m interested in that.”
“And the baseball team is recruiting him,” said Natalie.
“I wouldn’t say ‘recruited,’” said Jordan. “The coach called.”
“That’s impressive,” I said. “Good school.” Even though I hadn’t liked it on our visit I felt it was always best to say kind things about people’s educational choices. In fact, I’m really not sure how schools are actually judged in the widely read rankings. I suspected such best-of lists had little to do with the actual educational experience and were more about esoteric matters like research grants, endowed chairs, famous professors, and other elements of the university that meant nothing to undergrads. “Nat’ll probably go somewhere more–you know–we’re going to go look at Georgetown…”
I knew it was coming—
“What are you talking about?!” she was really angry now. “You don’t know anything!”
Just then the “Star-Spangled Banner” started, and we had to stand up and take our hats off. I could see out of the corner of my eye how frustrated she was having to stop talking.
“…and the home of the brave!” sang the crowd, but before Nat could launch back into me, Jordan tapped her and shook his head. After that she just sat down and finished her cheesesteak, her angry expression fixed on the field.
As the game started we all sat quietly watching the action on the field, sports talk on hold for now. Natalie leaned her head onto Jordan’s shoulder.
One of her better qualities is her ability to forgive, or at least move on, and so by the fourth inning we were all sharing the fleece blanket and ready to order hot chocolate. The A’s pitcher was holding the Red Sox to a single first inning homer, but the A’s anemic offense hadn’t been able to counter. Jordan impressed me with his knowledge, not only of the Major League team, but even some of the minor leaguers he said were ready to come up. The A’s were famous for their farm system which each year seemed to produce another stellar pitcher and a batch of position players. This allowed them to let the free-agent eligible stars go each year, and yet still stay competitive. Unfortunately, for some years, their competitiveness had been more of a tease than anything, taking them to the brink of the playoffs or to the wild card round, but never getting them within smelling distance of the World Series.
In the bottom of the fifth, the new second baseman, Scott Duncan, came up with a man on second.
“Watch this guy,” said Jordan leaning across Natalie to talk to me. “He’s got a great eye and tremendous bat control. Not much speed, though.”
Taking two close pitches for balls, he then fought off a high 90’s fastball, fouling it down the first base line.
“Two and one,” said Jordan. “Batter’s count.”
What Duncan did next would make the Top Ten on Sports Center that night. A right-handed hitter, he took an outside pitch, one that looked to be a foot off the plate, and slapped it over the first baseman’s head down the right field line, chalk kicking as it landed. The man on second had scored before the right fielder even reached the ball in the corner, and Duncan was coming around second when the throw came in.
“No!” shouted Jordan.
We were all on our feet watching the bespectacled kid digging for third.
After he was tagged out by a good three feet, we fell back into our seats.
“Not a fast runner,” said Jordan. “The third base coach should have stopped him.”
At least the score was tied.
The next batter struck out, and we moved to the top of the sixth. Monster designated hitter leading off.
It was then that my cell phone rang. The ID said Roger Leake, the Bell IT lead.
“Roger, what’s up?”
“We’ve been hacked.”
“What?!” I stood up and climbed over the other people in the row. “What happened?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” he said. “I got an alert on my phone at home, so I went into the network, and someone was trolling our email system. I was able to kick them out, but now I’m trying to trace them down.”
I was in the stairwell that led up to our section, people moving up and down past me between innings.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“Well, I’m going to go into the office and try to dig deeper. I need to look at our firewall, and see if any damage has been done to the network.”
“All, right,” I said. “I’ll be there shortly.”
“You don’t have to do that, boss.”
“No,” I said. “I do.”
Just then a roar went up, and as I came up out of the stairwell, the designated hitter was jogging around the base paths.
“I’m really sorry,” I told Natalie and Jordan. “But there’s an emergency in the office.”
“Dad! You can’t go!”
“I’ve really got to.”
Jordan stood up. “Thanks for the game. It was fun.”
I pulled out a couple twenties and handed them to Natalie. “You guys can take a cab.”
“That’s okay,” said Jordan. “I have the Ryde app on my phone. Hype owns them, so they let their drivers come in the parking lot at the end of the game.”
“Really?” I asked. “I should download that instead of taking BART into Berkeley.”
“I’ll get you a car,” said Jordan, tapping his phone.
“No, don’t do that.” The kid was embarrassing me now. “I can get it myself.”
He tapped again. “No need. It’s done. There’s a black Prius waiting for you at D gate.”
“Which one is that?”
He pointed. “You know, over by the main parking lot.”
“Okay, I owe you for this.”
“It’s okay. My parents pay for it. They don’t like me driving home from parties.”
I knew what that meant: keep the kid from drinking and driving. Fair enough.
I left them cuddling under the blanket and wondering whether I’d let this kid take too much control of the situation. I was beginning to like him, but I felt my role as adult in the situation had been somewhat usurped when he ordered me a car. I wasn’t sure whether I should take it as a sign of my encroaching irrelevancy with my daughter or simply an act of politeness and generosity from the young man. A worry for another day.
* * *
As an environmental engineer, my strength had always been more on the environmentaling and less on the engineering. With software I was proficient on all our basic tools, project management, CAD, and GIS, but when it came to networks and the inner workings of IT, I was lost. Roger had his PhD in EECS from Cal, and had built our network from the ground up. Another guy who could be making a lot more down in Silicon Valley, he preferred to ride his bike to work from his hillside house, and teach the occasional course at his alma mater.
Bell E.D.’s West Berkeley neighborhood was quiet, all the other offices shuttered for the weekend. I climbed the steps and swiped my key card. Inside, a faint glow emanated from Roger’s office.
The only Bell employee with a separate work space (aside from my glass box), I found him hovering over a screen full of Linux commands. Like most of his ilk, his typing speed was astronomical, and his capacity to read lines of code scrolling down the screen would have put a speed-reader to shame. I had spent plenty of time over the years standing over his shoulder wondering what the hell he was seeing.
While I waited I perused the photos of his pinball hobby taped to the walls, exotic and bizarre machines he’d designed or lusted after. His pride and joy was the one he’d created for the legendary Bay Area metal band “Blood Waltz,” recently featured on the Pinside website. Its distinctive element was an electric guitar that burst into flames if you hit the right combination of bonus triggers.
“This is weird,” he said, pushing his black-framed glasses back up his nose. He turned to me and I saw he was wearing a faded Megadeth t-shirt. I’d noticed over the years that computer nerds were invariably birthed as heavy metal fans in pre-adolescence, and though they didn’t tend to actually listen to that music once they’d matured, they seemed to have a continuing nostalgia for it.
“It was an internal breach.”
More rapid fire keying and scrolling. I kept standing, watching. Finally he pushed back from his desk, rubbing his eyes.
“Well, whoever got in the system was only interested in one thing.” I waited, though I knew what was coming. “Brian Cumming’s email.”
If I lived in New York, I would have gone to an all-night diner and stared into a cup of weak coffee. But the only things open in Berkeley at this hour were a couple of bars on San Pablo and around the campus, and I’d sworn off those places a long time ago. Without my car and without the Ryde app on my phone, I decided a walk across town would be a good way to get home. It would give me time to think. Not that I particularly wanted to think.
Once Roger had plugged the hack, or whatever the term was, I told him he could go home. The concern that some outsider had gotten into our network was gone. In a way, that would have been better. Good old corporate espionage. Something you could deal with. This, though, was different. Trevor was on a vendetta, and I had to stop him. If Brian was actually selling out Bell E.D., we’d find out sooner or later, but I didn’t need a vigilante torching our network and causing havoc in the company.
Roger wasn’t ready to go, even if I said so, and I left him pounding keys, building what he said would be a stronger defense for our system.
I walked through the quiet neighborhoods and tried to sort things out. I’d thought after Monday’s staff meeting that things were settled, or at least as settled as they could be for the moment. While there’d been some lingering tension in the office, I figured it was a time-is-the-great-healer situation. Apparently it was more of an untended-wounds-fester situation. Martha had warned me that I shouldn’t be so passive about it, that I should sit down with Trevor and Brian and hash it out, but I dreaded confrontations like that.
It was, of course, possible that Brian was lying, that he had made some kind of deal to fix the IS for Dilworth. It’s not that Trevor was wrong in thinking that. Rather it was more of a philosophical question. My attitude was, if you are going to screw your company as well as break the law, at some point it will all catch up with you. I suppose that means I believe in karma. I guess I do, not in some you’ll-come-back-as-a-cockroach way, but just in the old goes-around-comes-around way. I mean, where is it going to get Brian to do that? A little extra cash, and maybe an in for a corporate job with Dilworth? For that you risk your whole reputation and career? I can’t see it. I mean, I know people do stuff like that—did you ever see the pittance that politicians get from corporate lobbyists? They sell their votes and their integrity awfully cheap. But I digress.
No, I’d rather Brian dig his own hole than spend my time and stress and anger digging it for him. In any case, while I wasn’t sure if Brian had betrayed the company, I knew that Trevor had stepped way over a line tonight. I wasn’t going to wait for karma to punish that one.
* * *
With the beloveds in bed by the time I got home, my legs tired and my back aching, I made some hot tea and watched the Golf Channel replay of the U.S. Open second round. The recent disruptions had distracted me from this critical time in the golf calendar.
I am one of many golf fans for whom the Open is the favorite event of the season. While most tournaments are run by the PGA, the Professional Golfers’ Association, the Open is conducted by the venerable United States Golf Association, the USGA. As the name implies, the tournament is open to any scratch golfer, someone who consistently scores around par or better. The USGA holds qualifying matches in the weeks leading up to the event and a certain number of spots are filled from these tournaments. The majority, though, are still reserved for the true professionals, and rarely does one of the no-name qualifiers get far in the tournament anymore. Nonetheless, the hope is always there for someone to come out of the pack and reprise the famous 1913 tourney when a nineteen-year-old caddy named Francis Ouimet upset the legendary English golfer Harry Vardon.
What we non-qualifying watchers from the sidelines probably enjoy the most about the Open is that the USGA takes a different approach to preparing the golf course than the PGA. While the professional circuit aims to please the players with wide fairways and light rough, the USGA takes the attitude that their tournament should challenge the players with more difficult playing conditions. The PGA loves to see players’ winning scores at double-digits below par, while the USGA thinks par itself should be a challenge and doesn’t like to see a score far below. On that basis they tend to narrow down the fairways, grow the rough up around the ankles, and let greens dry and harden so putting becomes a thrill ride. This penalizes the errant tee-shot and creates situations that allow us recreational golfers to see the titans of the game experiencing some of the pain we feel every time we pull a club from our bag.
Add in the sentiment of the traditional Father’s Day final round, and you have an event that many of us wait all year to see. A few Opens ago, when the tourney was held at the historic Olympic Club in San Francisco, the young beloved had actually accompanied me to the Sunday round. This was before she’d entered full teenage-hood and still found Daddy-time an appealing experience. One could hope that such kindness toward the father might someday be repeated after the raging and roiling hormones finally subsided, but for now, there remained only memories of that gentler time.
This year the tournament favorite was the young Cody Fitch, and after two days he was lurking not far back from the leaders, Austin and Zeek Wilson, two unrelated, and in fact, distinctly different golfers. At six-foot five, Austin was a bomber whose drives routinely carried over three-hundred yards. He’d been in the hunt at every major tournament for the last three years, but couldn’t seem to close. The diminutive Zeek, in contrast, couldn’t get out three-hundred yards downhill with a tail wind, but the accuracy of his irons, especially his wedges, gave him an advantage that he had capitalized on to win the Masters and the British Open in his ten-year career.
While Thursday’s and Friday’s pairing were random, Saturday’s would send the golfers out in order of their ranking in the tournament, which meant the Wilsons would be strolling the links together at the end of the day, the type of story the golf media loved, and one that, in fact would draw a lot of attention. With Fitch just two strokes behind, the weekend was all set for drama.
In golf, unlike other sports, you can root for multiple players since they aren’t actually playing head-to-head. I liked all three leaders, Austin for his exhilarating power, Zeek for his sneaky short game, and Cody for his youthful confidence and swagger.
As I watched Friday’s round being replayed, I already knew the results. Natalie thought I was crazy to watch a sports event whose result I already knew (of course, this wasn’t the final day, when I’d want to watch in real time), but I drew a certain pleasure from watching how things had unfolded.
In the too-quiet of the bleak hours, even the U.S. Open couldn’t still my restlessness, though. By 3 a.m. I figured my early rising brother-in-law would be up, so I rang him.
“How’s the practicing coming?” I asked. “Your game rounding into shape?”
“I’m not sure this tournament is such a good idea.”
“What? How can you say that?” I muted the TV. “This is a chance to get back at the Hueys. What could be a better idea?”
“Golf is seeming a bit trivial compared to the other issue.”
I guess by now he knew I knew, since the beloved had probably relayed the fact that she’d spilled the beans to me about the Hueys’ planned development on Jeremy’s view.
“Now I know you’re feverish. Golf ‘trivial’? Really, Jeremy, you’ve got to get some perspective here.”
“They’re on schedule to break ground July 1.”
“That soon?” This was a real problem. The hardest thing to stop was a project in progress. Up till the first bulldozer dipped into the soil, there was always a chance, but once the dirt began to fly, it became exponentially harder.
“If those bastards build a bunch of McMansions on that land, I. . .”
“How can you say that? The city council and zoning board have all approved it. The fucking Environmental Impact Report is clean. How can that be? The houses will get swept away in the next hurricane, and then I‘ll have a waste dump in my front yard.”
“All right, Jeremy. You better send me that report.”
My phone dinged.
“What the hell?” I said.
“I had it open on my computer. I was just waiting for you to say that.”
“What are brothers-in-law for?”
“Exactly,” said Jeremy. “Let me know as soon as you find something.”
“Like in an hour.”
“Well, quickly, okay?”
“I don’t have to tell you that you still have the option of suing. That would at least delay them for a while.”
“You know I don’t want to do that.”
Jeremy’s alcoholic father had spent years entangled in lawsuits and it had given Jeremy a distinct distaste for that approach to problem-solving. A supposed entrepreneur, he tried to use his wife’s maiden name as a brand to attract investors. His father-in-law, Jeremy’s grandfather, had to bail him out of a couple misguided business deals, one a Kentucky distillery that promised high-end bourbon and wound up putting out low-end moonshine and another, a Midwest beef operation that ran afoul of the USDA. Each time his father tried to sue his way out of trouble, which only wound up increasing his losses. By the time Jeremy was five his father was out of his life and his mother had gone back to her maiden name. When he was ten his father died a sad alcoholic death. Scars like that tend to stay with you.
I couldn’t read an EIR on my phone, so after we hung up I got out my laptop and started going through it. Line by line, page by page, I assessed the engineers who had studied Jeremy’s view, an outfit from New Jersey. After an hour or so, I went upstairs and made some strong coffee. Then I got back at it.
Despite what Jeremy had said about suing, before I was done I’d determined to ask an environmental lawyer friend to look it over.
I was attaching the file to an email when I heard footsteps upstairs. I looked up and saw that it was getting light outside.
Martha came down the stairs in her bathrobe.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “Have you been up all night?”
“Yeah, it’s been an adventure.”
“Nat told me you had to leave the game,” she said. “What happened?”
I told her about the hack.
“That’s a little extreme,” she said. “What’s gotten into Trevor?”
“I wish I knew.”
“Can I make you some coffee? Get you something to eat?”
“Not right now.”
She folded her arms.
“Why did you start hassling Natalie about college?”
“She ratted me out?” I leaned back on the couch and rubbed my face.
“You should know better than to get into that topic,” she said. “Especially with Jordan there. What were you thinking?”
“I just wanted to give her some guidance.”
She came and sat on the couch beside me.
“You look terrible.” She patted my thigh.
“Thanks,” I leaned over and kissed her softly. “Jeremy asked me to go through the EIR for the Huey project.”
“The news isn’t good.”
“Tell me,” she said.”
“I don’t want to talk about it right now.” I kissed her again, and she kissed me back.
I pushed her back on the couch.
“Nat?” I asked.
“Won’t be up for hours.”
I started to push open her bathrobe.
“Go brush your teeth,” she said.
So I did.
And we did what we did on the couch.
* * *
Afterward I fell asleep right there until I heard a screech.
“Eeee! Are you naked?!” Natalie screamed. “Ewww! Mama?! Daddy’s naked on the couch! I want to watch TV”
How quickly she reverted from 17 to 5. It was true I had no clothes on, but I was amply covered by the throw.
I pulled the throw around me and got up.
“Why are you sleeping down here?” she asked as she headed to the couch and I upstairs.
“Did the A’s win?” I asked instead of answering the question.
“Typical meltdown,” she said as the TV came on and she started “Buy This House!” “Baskin blew the save in the top of the ninth with a leadoff walk followed by a double down the line and a seeing-eye single. Then the Red Sox hard-throwing closer struck out the side in the bottom of the frame.”
“Excellent sports clichés.”
“I trained you well.”
I took a shower, drank some more coffee, and sat down at my laptop. I couldn’t take on the Blenheim Beach powers that be from here, so I went on Linked In and tried to find a connection who could help. After a while I discovered a friend of a grad school acquaintance who worked at DelMarVa EcoDesign. DelMarVa was the cute little name people used for the area where three states came together. I shot him a message, and with the Wilsons’ tee-time still a couple hours off, I went to the course to practice my short game.
Weekends are a time when golf’s intergenerational appeal is on full display at Black Oak with players from five to eighty-five swarming the practice green and driving range. There’s a friendly buzz of activity with friends greeting friends, teachers giving lessons, and people working hard on improving at this impossible game. What makes it so hard? After watching baseball players the night before hitting a ball that was coming at them ninety-miles-per-hour, hitting a stationary ball at your feet didn’t seem like it should be so difficult.
Some say it’s the swing itself, which is supposedly unnatural, though I don’t know why swinging at things on the ground is unnatural. Others say it’s the ball or the club or the grass or the hole. I don’t believe the challenges of golf can be broken down to such mechanical aspects. The game, like life itself, is a mystery, ineffable and transcendent. Or something like that.
Anyway, I came to work on putting and chipping, but, like most golfers, I couldn’t resist bashing a few balls from the range, so I went and got a bucket and set myself up. Black Oak’s driving range is elevated so your ball appears to go further than it actually would on a flat course. I don’t know if that’s an advantage because it gives you confidence, or a disadvantage because it makes you overconfident. The truth is, the experienced golfer had a good idea on impact the results of a shot, so looking out to see where it landed on the range was not particularly important.
Just before teeing up my first ball, I looked down the row of golfers in various states of swing. I thought I recognized a teenager four or five stalls away. Then I realized who it was: the boyfriend. Behind him stood a tall, dark-haired man assessing his swing. I couldn’t resist saying hello, so I walked down to where Jordan was practicing. His swing was beautiful, long and fluid, culminating in a swing speed that was generating drives almost to the fence at the end of the range: 265 yards.
“Hey, Jordan,” I said as I came up.
He turned to see who it was.
“Oh, hi,” he said, then turned to his father. “This is Natalie’s dad.”
“Hi,” said his father. “I’m Dave.”
“Arthur,” I said. “Art.”
“Good to meet you, Art,” said Dave.
“Too bad about the A’s last night,” I said to Jordan.
“Yeah, but it was fun anyway,” he said. “Thanks for taking me.”
Wow, actual politeness. Maybe this kid wasn’t so bad.
“You getting in some practice?” said Dave.
With the three-wood in my hand and standing on the driving range, this was, I understood, small talk.
“Yeah,” I said. “I actually need to work on my short game, but I was just going to hit a few balls. Looks like your son has a nice swing.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get him to join the golf team, but it conflicts with baseball, and that’s his first love.”
“Yeah, Nat’s always like ‘Golf is so boring,’ but now she’s doing debate, so…” I didn’t know what I was talking about at this point. Just trying to get through the conversation. “I try to tell her, ‘Golf is something you can do for the rest of your life.’ And look at all the business people that play.”
“Exactly,” said Dave.
“Oh, no,” said Jordan. “You guys should form a club: Fathers of Children Who Won’t Play Golf.”
“Okay,” said Dave. “Let’s get back to your swing. You’re hooking it again.”
“I’ll let you go,” I said. “Maybe we could get a foursome with those two.”
“Great,” said Dave. “Call me.” He handed me his card, and I saluted and went back to my stall.
It was so discouraging seeing a seventeen-year-old outdriving me by forty yards that I just swiped at a half dozen balls and withdrew to the putting green where youth, strength, and flexibility weren’t an advantage.
When I got home Natalie came out of her room with her phone in her hand.
“Why are you talking to Jordan?” she shouted at me, waving her phone in the air. “He just texted me to say you were talking to him and his dad at the golf course.”
“Why shouldn’t I talk to them?”
“He’s not your friend.”
“Well I know him. I took him to a baseball game.”
“And we’re supposed to play golf with them?”
“That was his father’s idea.” I rarely lied to the beloveds, but it just popped out.
A sound came out of her, part anger, part disgust, part frustration. She spun on her heels and just before slamming the door shouted, “Now you’re going to have to coach me. I’m not making a fool of myself on the golf course with Jordan.”
Once again, a lucky bounce landed me in a perfect location, although the path to getting there had been rather unpleasant.
I retired to the serenity of the U.S. Open, watching the Wilsons battle it out. Not much changed that afternoon with both leaders struggling to stay under par and Cody Fitch breathing down their necks.
* * *
On Sunday morning I got an email from Bill Mathis at DelMarVa EcoDesign saying he’d be happy to talk anytime. I took him at his word and called right away.
After introducing myself and apologizing for the Sunday call I got right down to it.
“I’m trying to get some sense of the environmental review process down there,” I said. “Specifically in Blenheim Beach.” I explained Jeremy’s predicament, and he listened politely. But when I mentioned the Hueys, the politeness disappeared.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “You aren’t mixed up with those crooks.”
“I’m afraid we are.”
“Yeah, they started operating around here about two years ago.”
Which was when we’d first encountered them at the Sandy Hills Golf Club.
“They’re from up north. Jersey, I think,” said Mathis. “Anyhow, they’ve been involved in a few deals that raised eyebrows around here.”
“Is there any evidence of anything illegal?”
“No,” he said. “But these guys are not environmentalists, that’s for sure. “
“Do you know the people who did the EIR? ‘GeoSynTek Consulting.’”
“They’re not local,” said Mathis. “I never heard of them.”
“How about the Blenheim Beach Planning Commission? Anything there that makes you suspicious?”
“You know, the administration in these beach towns is very insular. They see the vacationers and absentee owners as money trees or cash cows or whatever. They kind of have an attitude like, ‘You guys don’t care about us, so why should we care about you.’ But Blenheim Beach in particular, I don’t know.”
“Could you poke around a little bit? Is there any state or county oversight?”
“Oh, sure, but those guys usually just go along with what the locals want unless it’s something truly egregious.”
“Well, I’m going to be out there next week, so maybe we can sit down then.”
I told him I’d send him the EIR to review and that we’d talk after that. Maybe with his knowledge of the area and some of the players, he’d see something in that document that I didn’t.
With that off my plate I could sit down and enjoy the final round.
* * *
If you’re any kind of sports fan, I don’t have to remind you of the epic finish to the Open that Father’s Day (which we celebrated by leaving Daddy alone with his golf match). Austin Wilson’s collapse on the back nine, Cody Fitch’s breathtaking charge that made him the leader in the clubhouse as the Wilsons came up the eighteenth fairway, all this would have made for a great tournament without Zeke Wilson’s final shot. With Fitch at six under par and Wilson one stroke behind, he needed a birdie to force a playoff. The announcers seemed split on their expectations. The hole had been lengthened to make it harder for the big hitters, and Zeke, of course, wasn’t a big hitter, which meant his approach shot was going to be over a hundred and eighty yards, back pin location, bunkers front and rear protecting the green.
No one expected what happened next—in fact, later the number crunchers would determine that no major championship had ever been won in this fashion. After consulting with his caddy, Zeke took a six iron out of his bag and with little fanfare stepped up and hit a towering shot that just cleared the frontside bunker, bounced twice, catching a slope on the right side of the green, rolled and rolled toward the cup. Everyone knew Zeke had tremendous control of his irons, but the way the ball was rolling, it looked as if he’d just walked on the green and dropped it there. He seemed to have read the break of the green from almost two hundred yards away. When the ball dropped into the cup for eagle and a one-stroke victory, Zeke threw his club in the air, and grabbed his caddy, the two of them stumbling around in an embrace like a couple of drunken lovers. The crowd stormed the course like an NCAA basketball championship, even though Austin Wilson still needed to finish the hole. Zeke was lifted up in the air and trooped up to the green, all the while struggling to get free and waving at security. By the time the cops and security personnel got the course cleared for Austin, his ball had been crushed into the soft fairway. The officials gave him a free drop, and he finished up the hole in a scene whose anti-climax provided a perfect contrast to the drama of a few minutes before. In a show of sportsmanship and appreciation, Cody Fitch came out and hugged Zeke, while Austin Wilson walked away, head bowed, another opportunity missed.
I ran upstairs to give Martha the exciting news (not that she’d care) and
discovered her suitcase open on the floor. She was rummaging around in her closet.
When she turned around she caught my confused look.
“You forgot,” she said.
“No.” Which wasn’t a complete lie. Something was coming back to me. “You’re going to Bolinas.”
“And you’ll be back…”
“On Thursday,” she said.
“See, I didn’t forget.”
“Yes you did,” she said. “There’s some leftover soup in the freezer for you and Nat. I’ve got to get through this first draft.”
I filled her in on my conversation with Bill Mathis and the situation in Blenheim Beach.
“It’s just going to break Connie’s heart if those condos go up,” she said. “How do people get away with this stuff?”
I wanted to tell her that this wasn’t about somebody’s view, that there were larger environmental issues involved, but I wasn’t sure I believed that myself. In any case, I’d noticed in the past that she didn’t always appreciate my moral stance when her sister’s welfare was involved. I congratulated myself for restraining my tongue. Still able to learn a thing or two, old boy.
“How are you going to handle the Trevor situation tomorrow?” she asked.
A little earlier I’d gotten an email from Roger confirming that the hack into Brian’s email had come from Trevor’s computer. Temporarily diverted by Jeremy’s view problem and the golf tournament, I’d managed to push the Bell E.D. issues out of my mind for the weekend. That would have to end tomorrow morning.
While there wasn’t exactly a pall over the office that morning, it felt as if someone had slipped decaf into the coffee machine. People were working and interacting, it was true, but the volume had been turned down. This was one of those times when I wanted someone else to be the boss. A quick scan told me Trevor wasn’t in yet, which was unusual. At least I wouldn’t have to get into it with him right away.
I’d meant to go in early, but with Martha gone, I’d made breakfast for Nat who was on her first day of summer break. Then she wanted a ride over to meet Jordan at his swim club. Her monologue on the way about the benefits and joys of belonging to the club was a poorly veiled lobbying effort to get me to join.
As I sat down and opened my email, Emily came into my office and closed the door. She wore what Nat had taught me were called “leggings,” though I thought that was the thing that women wore in eighties aerobic classes—no those were “leg warmers.” Then there were “tights” not to mention yoga pants. Anyway, I’m pretty sure Emily was wearing leggings, and she had a red kind of dress/shirt that came to mid-thigh. For men, “business casual” (what a horrible term!) was easy: Dockers and a shirt with a collar. For women, it seemed a lot more complicated. Which I guess was true of all their fashion choices.
Anyway, here was Emily dressed as she was dressed, sticking her phone in my face.
“Look,” she said.
Look!” she insisted.
I took the phone from her and turned away from the light coming in through the window. It was a photograph on Instagram. A man and woman in swimsuits on a tropical beach. He was behind her, hanging over her shoulder, and she had his arms in her hands. They both looked tipsy but happy. In love. The guy looked familiar, although the week’s growth of beard obscured his features.
I looked inquiringly at Emily.
“It’s Trevor,” she said.
I looked again. “Oh, right. I knew I recognized him.”
I held the phone out for her take back.
“No, look again,” she said. “The woman.”
I looked again. “Pretty,” I said, noncommittally.
“Don’t you know who that is?”
I squinted, tried to imagine her with clothes on or maybe shorter hair. Nothing.
“It’s Ellie!” said Emily.
Obviously my incomprehension was evident.
“Brian’s wife!” she nearly shouted.
I looked at the phone again, then out the window onto the main floor of the office. No one was looking at us.
“Yeah, oh shit. I take it you didn’t know Trevor was engaged to Brian’s wife before Brian came along.”
“Yeah, I’ve known Ellie for years. We’re not friends, but we ran in the same circles, back to high school. She’s not someone who would just toss a guy over, but she definitely broke Trevor’s heart.”
“When did all this happen?” I looked out into the office to see if Trevor was there yet. I was trying to figure out how much older he was now than in the picture.
“It’s at least three, four years.”
“So before Brian joined Bell.”
“Well, that explains why Trevor was the only holdout when I was getting people’s opinions on hiring him.”
“I honestly didn’t know then. I didn’t get back in touch with Ellie until Brian came here and I realized he was married to her. She told me about the whole drama, how Trevor had started acting kind of assholey, and then she met Brian and all that. But I figured Trevor had moved on by now. I mean he’s been through a couple relationships since then.”
“How did you come on that picture?”
“Trevor just posted it this weekend.”
“Oh, Christ. So he’s still carrying a torch.”
Just then there was a knock at the glass door. I hadn’t seen Trevor walk in, but there he was. I waved him in.
“Sorry, man,” he said, using an appellation I’d never heard from him before. I’d been “boss,” mostly, and occasionally “Art” or “Arthur.” Never “man.” “Can I talk to you?” he asked.
Emily got up to leave.
“Thanks, Em,” I said. She nodded and gave me a glad-I’m-not-in-your-shoes look.
Trevor quickly sat down.
“I’m so sorry,” he said putting his hands on his head. “I’m really sorry. I just…I don’t know…I’m totally…just like…I’m sorry.”
Not only did he feel sorry, he looked it. I knew hungover, and this was it in spades, or at least in hearts. Probably a full-on weekend bender. Maybe some coke tossed in. Probably.
This was not the Trevor I knew, a somewhat arrogant Englishman. Humility—or in this case humiliation—wasn’t his usual attitude.
“I know you must know by now,” he said. “Roger’s too smart to miss it. I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know.”
“Trevor, what the fuck?” I said. “What are you trying to prove? You don’t really believe Brian sold us out?”
“No, no, that was nuts. I’m sorry.”
“You said that.”
Suddenly the door burst open and Brian came in.
“You fucking bastard!” he shouted coming at Trevor.
Trevor was out of his seat with his hands up.
“Whoa, man,” said Trevor. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Don’t fuck with me,” said Brian. “You’re trying to mess with Ellie’s head, and you know it.”
“No, I mean, I’d never do that. She still means too much to me.”
“I don’t want to hear that,” said Brian. “You don’t get to say that shit.”
“Hold on, you guys,” I said. “Just settle down.”
It didn’t look like anyone planned serious violence, but this outburst was completely out of character not just for these two environmental engineers, but for the office. Through the glass I could see that everyone was on their feet watching.
“Do you have any idea what he’s been up to?” asked Brian. “He hacked my email, did you know that?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We were just getting to that.”
“I can’t work with this scumbag,” said Brian.
“Hey, Bri, don’t call me that,” said Trevor.
“Don’t fucking ‘Bri’ me, man, you English fuck.”
“Look,” I said. “This is completely unprofessional, and I’m not going to tolerate it. You guys have to work out your personal problems somewhere else. This isn’t a fucking encounter group.” They were probably too young to know what the hell an encounter group was. “Both of you guys can go home for the day. And don’t come back until you can act like adults.”
For a moment they stood eyeing each other waiting for the other to move.
“Brian,” I said. “Just go get your stuff. I’ll call you later.”
He glanced at me, nodded, and left.
“Okay, Trevor,” I said. “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but it’s got to stop. You’re a great engineer, but you’re not so valuable I have to live with this kind of chaos. Take the day and think about it.”
His shoulders sagged, he took a deep breath, and walked out.
I fell back into my chair and stared at the ceiling. What the hell was I going to do with two of my most skilled engineers at each other’s throats?
Emily came back in my office shaking her head.
“Apparently there were more postings,” said Emily. “Trevor got on some kind of a social media harassment kick over the weekend.”
“I don’t think that’s the only kick he was on.”
“Yeah, he’s been known to indulge,” she said.
“I’m supposed to go on vacation at the end of the week,” I said. “I don’t know how I’m going to leave when the place is falling apart.”
“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “Something that might help them deal with this problem.”
When she told me, though, I wondered if “anything” was too strong a term.
Once she was at the swim club, it was rare to hear from the young beloved for the rest of the day. Jordan lived nearby, so it was likely when their swimming needs were sated, that they would retire to his home to do things I didn’t want to know about. So, her mid-afternoon text asking me to pick her up was a surprise.
Since the only pressing job was the Dilworth IS, and Brian was in charge of that and Brian wasn’t here this afternoon, I figured an early departure was in order.
“I need to pick up my clubs,” said Natalie when she got in the car. “Jordan threw down the gauntlet.”
“That’s a bit medieval isn’t it?”
“We studied the Age of Chivalry last year,” she said. “Plus, all the boys play the video game.”
“A complete education, then.”
It turned out that the casual foursome I’d envisioned with Nat, Jordan, and his father had turned into a teenage grudge match. Having seen Jordan’s swing and knowing Nat’s issues making contact with the ball, I didn’t like our chances. But one mustn’t shrink in the face of a challenge from a fellow golfer. The thing was to invoke the handicap.
The handicap was a brilliant invention designed to allow golfers of varying abilities to compete in a way that took into consideration their variances. In stroke play, the handicap is subtracted from the gross score at the end of the round and is meant to bring you close to par, assuming you played at the top of your capacity. The number is derived by recording your score on at least 20 rounds, then applying a mathematical formula too abstruse to even summarize here. The unscrupulous amateur who seeks a leg up in competition, records only his (usually a man) worst scores, pushing his handicap to a higher number, thus giving him an advantage. I’m afraid I take too much pride in my almost single-digit HC to apply such skullduggery.
But with Natalie, things were different, because she hadn’t been keeping a handicap. I felt that, using my negotiating skills, I’d be able to get Jordan and pere to agree to something like thirty. I wondered what pere’s HC was.
As I’ve mentioned, Natalie’s swing, taken in the abstract, is lovely. Long and flowing, it could pass for a solid stroke. However, something always seemed to happen at the point of impact—which sometimes was a point of no-impact. This problem was clearly associated with the most common problem for the beginning golfer: looking up. It’s natural to want to know where your ball is going, and the unpracticed golfer tends to lift her head right before the club arrives at the ball. The result is that the rest of the body follows the rising of the head, and the club, rising ever so slightly, causes the golfer to “top” the ball. Much like the skull mentioned in my chipping lesson with Johnny, topping means hitting the northern hemisphere of the ball, which results in a skidding, low shot with little or no force. The ball never gets off the ground and travels barely a tenth of the distance it should.
This was Natalie’s problem. Having reflected on it, checked my reference books, and consulted Johnny for his expertise, I’d come up with an exercise that I hoped would solve it.
Arriving at the range, I purchased a large bucket of balls from the machine and got Natalie set up. I started her with a seven iron, just hitting half shots to get a feel. But as soon as she took a full swing, the topping started.
“Hold it,” I said. I placed two balls down on the mat so that from Natalie’s perspective, a second ball was just beyond the one she would be hitting. “This is what I want you to do. Keep your eye on the ball you’re not hitting. It’s not going anywhere, so even after you hit your ball, keep looking at this one. That way you won’t look up.”
“Okay,” she said, settling into her stance and gripping the club as I’d taught her years before.
She tried it. “Thwack,” she hit it crisply, cleanly, and the ball traveled high and long.
“Wow!” I said.
“Wow!” she said.
“Try it again,” I said.
Another “thwack,” another hundred and twenty yard seven iron straight down the range.
As Henry Higgins would say, “I think we’ve got it.”
We went through her bag, one club at a time, finally arriving at the driver. When I saw the ball land well past the one-fifty marker, I figured we were in business. While this certainly wasn’t anywhere near the Jordan distance I’d seen or even my own humbler drives, I have learned, through sometimes painful experience, that the person who hits the ball straightest often defeats the one who hits it longest and less straight—something of a tortoise and hare situation.
Of course there’s a lot more to golf than hitting a ball off a plastic mat. Taking the swing you learn on a flat mat onto a golf course was a huge step. Innumerable challenges faced the golfer: hills and valleys; wind and elevation; rough and trees; sandtraps and the ever-challenging greens.
“Let’s go play a round,” I said.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“Fine, we’ll get some hot dogs.” This would solve the dinner problem with the beloved out of town.
“Can we take a cart?”
“Come on, Nat. We need the exercise.”
“I don’t. I’ve been swimming all day.”
Yeah, and whatever other activities she and Jordan had been up to.
“All right. I’ll go get us a tee time and you can get the dogs.”
On the course, instead of keeping her score, I had her hit repeated shots from various spots, rough and fairway, bunker and fringe. I put her behind trees to show her how to get out of a tough spot, and on the side of hills to show her how to manage shots above and below her feet. She was a quick learner, a natural athlete, and now that she’d learned how to get a clean strike on the ball, her enthusiasm was growing. Of course, one other thing was driving her as well.
After she took her approach shot from the steep ninth fairway, and we saw it bounce on the green, she bumped my fist and said, “I’m gonna kick Jordan’s ass.”
“Really, that’s how you talk now?”
“Hey, it’s sports,” she said. “And you know how boys are. Always think they can beat us.”
“True enough.” And in fact, I myself was beginning to think we had a chance against the Jordans, whatever their last name was. This might be a good preparation for the lurking Huey match.
* * *
The office of Dr. Lois Mead, PsyD was tucked in an upstairs corner of a classic Arts and Craft house on a side street in Elmwood, a trendy shopping neighborhood in South Berkeley. When Emily had told me her idea of sending Trevor and Brian to couples therapy, at first I’d laughed.
“I didn’t know they were dating,” I said.
“I’m serious,” said Emily. “Do you want them to quit?”
“Christ, no,” I said. “But I can’t imagine how a therapist is going to work with them.”
“That’s for her to figure out.”
“You know someone?”
“I think so,” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“You have a better idea?”
And so now we sat in the little waiting room looking at our phones while other clients and therapists passed through. Martha and I had gone through a round of couples’ therapy early in our marriage, and I’d always found the waiting room to be the most traumatic part of the entire experience. On a golf course I can join a threesome of strangers and be chatting about work, family, and the game in minutes, but a therapist’s waiting room was as touchy as a cancer ward. Here there was that I-hope-I-don’t-run-into-anyone-I-know feeling, plus the, I-wonder-what-their-problem-is question.
At least in an AA meeting all your cards were on the table when you walked in: you had a drinking problem. I remember my first time. I kept wanting to turn the car around, afraid of what people would think when I showed up, then on entering realizing that other admitted alcoholics weren’t about to point their fingers at me for being one, too.
Dr. Mead, or Lois, as she asked us to call her, was a petite older woman, dressed impeccably, with professionally dyed hair. No scarves or hippie dresses. Just conservative slacks and an attractive mauve sweater. (At least I think it was mauve. The beloveds are trying to train me to identify non-primary colors. A distinct challenge.)
She led us up a narrow staircase into her office which had an outer and an inner door, I guess to make it sound proof. The building was occupied entirely by therapists, and the rooms and halls had apparently been reconfigured to maximize the number of available offices. Lois pointed Emily and me to a brown suede couch while Lois slipped into a comfortable upholstered chair. Behind her was a non-functioning fireplace with a tall vase holding a handful of cattails. The bookshelves were packed with the requisite therapist books whose titles I tried to read sideways. Behind the closed laptop on her desk was a metal sculpture of a Hindu god standing on one foot waving a half-dozen arms. I glanced out the window and saw a laundry line coming out of the apartment next door, an adult sized Superman costume hanging alongside boxers and tee shirts that waved in the wind.
As we sat down I wondered if it was really necessary meeting Lois before sending Trevor and Brian here. Something about being in front of a therapist made me feel vulnerable and exposed. I always felt like they could see into me, kind of like a psychic or someone who read auras. I tried to act normal, like, “Nothing wrong with me, don’t worry,” smile, smile. After some brief small talk, I got right to the point.
“Is this really a thing?” I asked. “Therapy for co-workers.”
“What do you mean?” said Lois.
“You know, are people doing this?”
“Some of my colleagues have taken on similar cases, but I mostly work with couples.”
“Lois comes highly recommended,” said Emily, smiling herself at the therapist. “These friends of mine, a lesbian couple, said she saved their marriage.”
“No, I’m sure,” I said. “I just…what would you do? How do you approach something like this?”
“My view,” said Lois, “is that a relationship is a relationship, whether it’s romantic, professional, or otherwise. You’re dealing with the same human dynamics, the wish to be heard, to be respected, to be loved.”
“Uh, I’m not sure that’s Trevor and Brian,” I said.
“When I say ‘loved’ I’m talking about something more basic than romance or even affection. The essence of love is to care about others and want the best for them. The essence of wanting love is wanting care and wanting others to want the best for you.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” I said, though I still wasn’t sure it applied to these guys. “Did Emily tell you anything about the situation?”
“Just that they were employees in your company who were in conflict.”
“Yeah. The thing is, it’s not just professional. There’s also a woman involved.”
“Well, I’m sure I’ll get all the details from them, if you want to move forward. Of course, you’ll have to have their agreement and buy-in. I’m not interested in working with them if they aren’t committed to the process.”
And there was the rub.
I tried to assume a Lois-like demeanor as I faced the two men sitting across the desk from me in my office. I’d always thought it wouldn’t be that hard to be a therapist. Listen, nod, and say “How does that make you feel?” Now in my pseudo-role—really just trying to get them to agree to see a therapist—I felt stymied. Since the origin of that word is from golf—it means someone’s ball is in front of yours and blocking your progress to the hole—I suppose it was appropriate.
“You’re kidding,” said Trevor when I’d outlined the plan. Today he’d foregone his usual black, opting for khaki pants and a brown polo shirt. His longish hair looked to have been trimmed as well.
“No way,” said Brian. His muscles seemed to be bulging more than usual, or else he’d put on a small tee shirt this morning. “Anyway, I’m not the problem. It’s Trevor here that needs to straighten out.”
Recognizing this attitude from my own resistance to couples therapy years ago, I pushed on.
“I thought it was weird, too, when Emily suggested it—“
“Emily?” Trevor spun around to try to see her in the office.
“But I’ve come around to her way of thinking. We have a situation here: two guys who need to work closely together but now have a serious conflict. That conflict needs to be resolved. Conflict resolution, that’s what we need.”
“You’ve been in Berkeley too long, man,” said Trevor.
“You know,” I said. “I don’t really like the ‘man” thing, Trevor. ‘Boss’ I accepted as cute-ish. Art, Arthur, even Arty is okay. But ‘man’? No.”
Finally I had his attention. I wasn’t the kind of boss to dress people down in public, so I could see I’d hit a nerve. A little humility wouldn’t hurt the guy.
“Look, fellas. This isn’t really a choice. You need to do this. I’m not going to work with both of you under the present circumstances. Understood?”
They gave me grudging nods.
“Good. We got you an appointment for tomorrow morning. Emily will give you the details.”
As they walked out I thought of Lois’s words: they had to be “committed to the process.” I wasn’t sure I’d extracted that commitment. Oh, well.
Had I ever had a stranger day at work? Not that I could recall. But one needed to be flexible, change with the times, keep the mind open, etcetera. In fact, office therapy, now that I’d gotten more used to the idea, was starting to seem like it had potential. What if we did group therapy? Maybe break the office into smaller pods and each one work with a shrink. Hmmm. It had potential. I’d have to talk to Lois about it.
* * *
Usually when the beloved departed on her creative writing sojourns, silence was a sign of her immersion in the process. Nonetheless, I was pleased to hear from her that afternoon. A text came in asking how everything was. I supposed “everything,” meant Brian and Trevor. I wrote back that everything was under control, going smoothly. You never wanted to upset the beloved when she was writing. Letting her in on the messy real life details of my day would only distract her from the vital work of making stuff up.
Her novel was supposed to change things for her. After attaining tenure the same year Natalie started first grade, Martha’s interest in academic study had waned. Her last bit of research had produced a striking article that appeared in the Journal of Modernism exploring the nature of Virginia Woolf’s sexuality. It didn’t engender a single letter to the editor, invitation to a conference, or even an email commending her work. Fed up with writing into an apparent vacuum, she started writing “creative non-fiction,” essays, commentary, and op-ed pieces for the San Francisco Chronicle. These were well-received, and she was invited to do more. Then, one day while working on a personal essay, she realized she wanted to do more of the “fiction,” and less of the “non.” Thus began her novel.
The uninitiated imagine the work of a professor to be read a few books, teach a class, go home and cogitate. Plenty of time for novel writing and the like. While this may describe life at Harvard or Princeton, Clark College expected quite a bit more from their profs. Meetings, grading, office hours, writing recommendations, reading theses, meetings—oh, and did I mention meetings? Then there is email. The aging population of CC professors believed one should never scrimp on the use of All Staff messages, and that Reply All, should be used to reply to all emails. Being naturally verbose—recent academic research determined that college professors like nothing so much as their own voices—they liked to use the faculty email list as a place to educate other faculty in lengthy missives on the topic of the day, whether it had any relevance to the actual goals of the academy or not.
The bottom line: no time for novel writing. Thus, the writing sojourns at summer, spring, and winter breaks.
Her hope, expressed only in her most vulnerable moments, was that a best-seller would emerge and provide an escape from academic tedium and a financial windfall. Not being a dreamer by nature, she tried to squelch these fantasies, but sometimes when the round of meetings on emotional support pet issues became too much, she couldn’t help herself from indulging in fantasy.
I had refrained from pointing out that the satire of her novel was directed at the very thing she wished to get away from. One must always be careful when commenting on the beloved’s beloved work. Best to maintain an attitude of unquestioned support and positive reinforcement. Never having written anything longer than an Environmental Impact Report, I had little sense of what it took to write hundreds of pages of prose, pulling ideas out of thin air rather than polluted groundwater. Nonetheless, after three long years of supporting her project, one’s capacity for unquestioningness could potentially begin to wane. “Buck up,” I told myself. “Whatever makes her happy.”
And so my closing text:
Have a great writing day!
* * *
The call from Bill Mathis at DelMarVa EcoDesign was almost a relief after the office drama.
“Is this a good time?” he asked.
I’d been gathering papers and getting ready to leave the office. With Martha away, I wanted to make dinner for Nat, although she was as likely to run off with her friends as she was eat with me. The first week of summer vacation she tended to be somewhat manic.
“Fine,” I said, sitting back down.
“Well, it’s like you said,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the EIR.”
I’d heard the same in an email from my environmental lawyer friend earlier in the day, and now it was confirmed. I’d known it when I read it myself, but I had hoped that somehow I was wrong. I felt myself slumping in my chair. In two weeks they’d be breaking ground on this project, and with the clock ticking we were getting nowhere.
“Everything I see in there is kosher. It’s what I don’t see.”
“Yeah?” I perked up.
“I can’t point to anything specific right now, but I’m going to keep on digging.”
“Can you at least tell me what direction you’re digging in?”
“I think there’s another approach—but I don’t want to say too much.”
“I understand.” I’d also learned not to make premature promises.
“Let me talk to some folks in the neighborhood.”
“No, civilians. There are some groups around here that are concerned about development who have been looking at all kinds of environmental issues. I think there’s another way to approach this situation.”
“Well, look, Bill,” I said. “Whatever it takes. My brother-in-law will cover any expenses and fees.”
“Okay,” said Bill. “I didn’t want to bring that up. I wanted to help just out of professional courtesy, but I am pretty busy right now, so that makes it easier to justify taking the time.”
“Whatever you need,” I said. “I’m going to be flying out on Saturday, so maybe we can get together on Monday.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” he said. “I hope I can give you something by then.”
I couldn’t help wondering if someone had been bought off. Even though I was sure now Brian hadn’t falsified the Dilworth IS, that whole situation had put fraud in my mind. Whatever it was, I was convinced there was something wrong with this environmental impact report. I just didn’t know what it was.
When I learned that the young beloved’s beloved’s last name was Watson, I wondered if we shouldn’t bow out of the little father/offspring match. Had I actually supposed they were related to Tom, the eight time major champion, I would have, but on the tee, Jordan’s father, Dave, only chuckled at the thought.
“I wish,” he said.
As Jordan’s opening drive veered off the fairway through the trees and bounced off the hood of a silver Toyota Road Runner SUV in the parking lot, the words “With great power comes great responsibility” came to mind. Fortunately I didn’t speak them aloud, as the young beloved wouldn’t take kindly to parental disparagement, and, in any case, she didn’t believe in criticizing anyone except her parents. He slammed his driver into the ground and swore under his breath.
Instead I said, “I think that’s OB. You can take another one or just drop up there.” Technically he was supposed to hit another shot from here, but I assumed we were playing by more casual rules.
“You better drop, Jordan,” said his father. Dave knew his son’s game and probably suspected, as did I, that a mulligan would simply follow the first drive into the parking lot, and he probably didn’t want to be responsible for repairing any more vehicles.
The first hole at Black Oak is a challenging uphill par four, and Dave and I had been fortunate to get our drives out two hundred-twenty yards and in the fairway. We all followed Natalie down to the so-called “ladies tees,” which shortened the hole by about thirty yards. With her newly acquired skill at striking the ball, she hit her shot straight up the fairway a hundred and fifty yards. Quite respectable as far as I was concerned.
For his second shot (which actually counted as his third having been penalized for his errant drive), Jordan attempted an ill-advised, heroic over-the-trees blast, which unfortunately hit a tree and bounced backward.
Now his swearing was more audible, but for the sake of propriety and out of respect for the game of golf, I’ll refrain from repeating his words.
At least he was in the fairway now, though he was still a few yards behind his father and me. Natalie’s second shot passed us. Jordan could only reach the steep slope in front of the green, while Dave actually got on the elevated green, and I settled into the rough just short. It took Natalie two more shots, but she too was on the green. Jordan, stuck in thick rough, caught a flier that jumped out of the damp grass and skittered across the green, coming to rest in the rough behind the green. Now faced with a tricky downhill chip shot, he flubbed it, and had to chip again. Finally he reached the green lying seven.
We had agreed that eight would be the maximum score on any hole, so Jordan picked up his ball and threw it into the woods. While Dave two putted, I managed to chip it close and match him at par four. Natalie shot six.
The drive on the second hole creates a great risk/reward opportunity. A dogleg left from an elevated tee offers a potential shortcut over a towering eucalyptus that might in its youth have been easily flown, but now required a shot like Jordan’s previous heroic attempt. Dave, Natalie, and I took the low-risk approach, popping irons down the hill, which, while leaving us all long approach shots, at least eliminated the likelihood of a big score.
Jordan, predictably took out driver and aimed for the tree. I looked at his father who gnawed on his lower lip. When he glanced at me I raised my eyebrows in alarm, but he shrugged. Clearly he was taking the they-have-to-learn-for-themselves approach to parenting, which, while usually sound is, in my opinion, dangerous when applied to such an important and critical part of your child’s development as their golf game. I personally never hesitate to offer my guidance to Natalie on the course. At least then, if she chooses to go her own way, I know I’ve done my best and have no regrets.
On this shot, though, Jordan was able to control his hook, and the ball rose higher and higher, clearing the tree with inches to spare. From here we couldn’t see the ball land, but with my knowledge of the course, I suspected he had pulled it off and given himself a chip shot to the green, while Dave and I were looking at long irons over a valley and up the hill; Natalie would probably need two shots.
“Beautiful, Jordan,” I said. Always important to praise the opponent’s good play. This is golf, after all.
“Thanks,” he said as he picked up his tee.
I was impressed that, having pulled off such a challenging shot, there was no gloating. Of course, having made a complete muddle of the previous hole, he had some making up to do. After all, he’d already put his team two shots in the hole.
He got those two shots back, quickly, though, when he parred number two and Natalie had another double-bogey. In fact, I was happy with Nat’s play, even though she was angry that Jordan was hitting the ball so much further than her.
The round settled down into essentially a competition between the teenagers. Dave and I were pretty evenly matched and neither of us could gain an advantage. On one hole I’d hit a slice and get behind a tree to lose a stroke, then the next hole Dave would overshoot the green or hook it into the rough. Neither of us was a great player, but we didn’t fall off a cliff, either. And I had, at least temporarily, fixed my tendency to pull short irons to the left thanks to Johnny’s astute guidance.
At the same time, as Jordan seesawed between disaster and triumph, Natalie kept steadily plodding around the course. With her string of bogeys and double-bogeys she was keeping up with Jordan who managed a birdie here and there, and several pars, but then took eight on a par three and twice more on par fours.
When we came to the final hole, amazingly enough we were tied. My first thought on reaching the tee was that the outcome of the match all depended on Jordan’s drive. For once he striped it, the ball rolling out two-hundred and seventy yards, giving him just a wedge into the green. Figuring we were cooked, I wasn’t looking when Natalie struck her ball.
“Wow!” said Jordan. “Nice one, Nat.”
I turned to see the ball rolling almost to the hundred and fifty hard marker, which meant it had gone more than two hundred yards. While I knew she was getting some help from the dry, summer fairways, I also knew that with her elegant swing, good contact could send a ball a long way. Dave and I matched each other’s shots, and Natalie put her approach shot twenty yards short of the green on the uphill apron.
We all stood aside while Jordan lined up his approach. So far he’d been pretty good with his wedges and I expected him to put it close. He got the distance just right, but he pulled it just a bit and wound up in the greenside bunker.
Now we had a chance. The shot Natalie had was one I’d practiced with her, showing her how she could take a varieties of approaches, either hitting a high lob shot or playing a lower “bump and run.” I expected her to try the lob, since that was a shot most people seemed to like. So I was surprised when I saw her take out an eight-iron and line up for the low shot. Maybe I read too much into one’s golf game—if that is possible—but this seemed to me the decision of a grownup. I was proud of her choice of clubs, a choice she made without my guidance or advice.
She executed the chip like a pro, the ball, hitting on the front of the green and rolling straight at the pin.
“Whoa!” I shouted. The ball bumped the flagstick and stopped six inches from the hole.
I high-fived her, and she went up and tapped in for par to get her ball out of the way.
“Beauty, Natalie,” said Dave, who now knew his son needed to hole out to win, an unlikely event, and get it up and down to tie.
Jordan’s bunker shot wasn’t bad, but it slid ten feet past the pin. When he missed his putt, Dave and I both two putted, and the match was Nat’s and mine.
* * *
The so-called nineteenth hole hadn’t held much allure for me since my long ago drinking days, but in the golf tradition of the winner buys, I offered to buy lunch for the Watsons. The A’s were playing a day game, so we sat down with burgers and sandwiches and watched.
“You’ve got a hell of a game, Jordan,” I said between bites of pastrami. “Once you get a little more control you’ll be a monster.”
“That’s what I keep telling him,” said Dave.
“You know,” I said. “When I was having trouble driving straight, I used my three wood for a while. Did you ever think of that?”
Dave gave Jordan a significant look.
“That’s what my dad says.”
“Well,” I said. “I don’t like giving advice on golf, but it’s a thought.”
“Baseball’s my real sport,” said Jordan.
“Right. That’s what Natalie told me. We’ll have to come see you play sometime.”
“They have a game on Friday,” said Natalie. “You want to go?”
As invitations to do anything with my daughter were extremely rare, I quickly accepted.
“The only trouble with baseball,” I said, “is even if you can play in college, once you graduate you’ll hardly ever play again. Whereas, with golf, it’s a lifetime…”
“Dad!” Natalie interrupted me. “Mind your own business.”
“It’s all right,” said Jordan. “My father says the same thing.”
Dave and I nodded at each other, acknowledging the futility of trying to enlighten the young.
That evening the beloved returned from her writing excursion in high spirits. Apparently a “breakthrough” had opened the way to what she thought would be the home stretch, good news indeed. We celebrated with dinner out at her favorite Chinese where I caught her up on the Trevor and Brian situation. Both appalled and amused, she shook her head and chuckled through the whole story.
“How do you think they’ll handle it?” she asked over spring rolls.
“Well, they were a bit subdued afterward. I didn’t want to talk to them about it yet.”
“And I thought Clark College had the corner on weird.”
When I went into the details of the golf match as the sweet and sour soup was served, she faded into her pretending to listen mode until I told her that Natalie had won it for us.
“That’s great,” she said. “So she’s getting better.” She sipped the soup while I tried not to slurp.
“Much. I think competing with the boyfriend was a big motivator.”
“She’s supposed to give her debate partner, Mark, a lesson tomorrow.”
“Really?” said Martha. “You don’t think Jordan will mind?”
“My question exactly.”
* * *
It turned out Jordan didn’t take it well at all. Thursday evening Natalie came home in tears, ran to her room, and slammed the door. After a few minutes Martha tapped lightly and went in.
Need I go over the details? Suffice it to say that our attendance at Jordan’s baseball game the next day was cancelled, and with the three of us leaving for Connie and Jeremy’s on Saturday, there was little time for the couple to make up. Then again, perhaps the oncoming separation had contributed to the breakup itself. One never knows with these complex romantic interactions. While I had previously been concerned by the over-involvement of the young beloved with Jordan, having seen the potential in his golf swing, I was no longer on the opposing side of the boyfriend question. This, too, may have been predictable, for what teenage girl wants her father to approve of her boyfriend?
One could only hope that the trip would result in an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” situation rather than an “out of sight, out of mind” one. Who made up these aphorisms, anyway? Although convenient, since they covered all situations, one tended to lose faith in such confidently spoken contradictions.
* * *
Ordinarily I might have skipped the office on the last day before leaving on vacation. After all, what’s the point of being the boss if you can’t goof off now and then? But I wanted to take the temperature of Trevor and Brian, not to mention the rest of the staff who’d been exposed to the breakdown of civility over the past week.
I was surprised to find neither of them at their desks when I arrived. Some of the hardest workers in the office, it was rare for either of them to be late. I went out into the office and over to Emily’s desk.
“Did Trevor and Brian have another appointment with Lois?” I asked.
“Not that I know of,” she said.
Just then the door opened and the two of them walked in together laughing.
“Hey, boss,” said Trevor as he walked past me.
They went together to Brian’s desk where Trevor stood behind him and watched as Brian pulled up some numbers.
Emily returned my quizzical look with a shrug.
“Am I allowed to ask Lois how it’s going?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” said Emily.
I supposed I should just be happy, but one had to wonder how such a turnaround had happened. Perhaps I should give Lois a bonus.
* * *
No golf story is complete without a mysterious and magical figure who represents the golf gods or the ghost of Tom Morris or some such nonsense. In this case, such a role is played by someone we in Berkeley call “The Guru.” As our town is known for its Buddhists, Hindus, Sufis, and Yoga masters, a golf guru seems perfectly appropriate. The Guru, who stands all of five foot three, has been a figure on our courses since the late sixties. Some say he was an Irish acid-head who took too much Orange Sunshine; others say he was a Scottish professor of Hermeneutics at Cal. In any case, his guidance was sought by all the locals when their game was threatened. Neither a swing coach nor a short game master, The Guru was more of a spiritual advisor. If you got the yips or you’d suddenly lost fifty yards on your drive or any such extreme collapse had befallen you, to The Guru you went. Keeping office on the patio overlooking the thirteenth green (a sign?), The Guru could be found sipping iced tea and reading P.G. Wodehouse. One approached him casually, for his role was completely informal, and said something like, “Care to play a few holes?” or even more euphemistically, “Want to take a little walk?”
The Guru didn’t do practice. You didn’t go to the range and have him watch your swing or anything of the sort. You simply played a round or as many holes as he felt you needed, and you listened. His advice was cryptic but profound. Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to divulge any specifics as one of The Guru’s rules is that nothing is written down, and in fact, he maintains absolute anonymity. Even on the club roles he is merely identified as “TG.”
With the Huey match imminent, I went and played a few holes with TG. Not that I was suffering from any of the previously mentioned impediments to my game, but I did feel the need for some spiritual healing, whatever that might mean. In fact, on the short par three fourth hole, TG said something—it pains me not to be able to say what, although perhaps like many such revelations, out of context it might mean nothing—that clicked. Suddenly my swing felt as free as the wind (I’m sorry, spending time with TG makes me prone to cliches), as loose as a goose (I know, I know), as fluid as a river (never mind). Seeing that I had crossed that imaginary threshold from golfer to mystic, we silently agreed that our work was done, and we headed to the clubhouse for more iced tea.
Bring on the Hueys.
There would appear to be a natural tendency to become increasingly conservative as one progresses from young adulthood and onward to middle age. One rarely sees fifty-year-old suicide bombers, for instance—although perhaps that’s not the best example. I myself had never been tempted to strap explosives to my body, but nonetheless, my early engagement with environmental issues tended toward the far end of the political spectrum.
Is this a good time to tell you about my early years? Have I waited too long in my narrative? Well, let me risk it, and I promise to keep it short. My purpose in doing so will soon be clear.
My father was a veterinarian in Monterey, California, and I can only describe my sense of connection with that wild, rocky shoreline as spiritual (perhaps a hangover from my time with The Guru). When winter winds lashed the cliffs, I would stand on the rocks and let the spray baptize me with its salty blessings. Summer hikes in the hills were journeys of discovery and wonder (I promise to stop this soon). On the golf end, my father’s connections got me free rounds on the iconic courses, and Pebble Beach was like a playground for me. In my teenage years, my nascent radicalism pulled me away from the golf courses and what I’d begun to view as their stuffy ambience, toward the south and Big Sur. Here I found fellow travelers on the fringes of the environmental movement. With good dope and lots of beer, we would lounge in the Esalen hot springs and talk about how we were going to change the world.
At the end of my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened, and I was able to intern there for three summers. But doing data entry for the Seafood Watch Science Program didn’t satisfy my impatience for change, so as soon as I graduated I went off to Humboldt County with a group that called itself “The Redwood Rescue Project.” Our efforts to halt old-growth logging involved digging holes in fire roads, puncturing truck tires, and chaining ourselves to trees. Unfortunately, our excessive consumption of high-quality homegrown weed undermined our organization and ambition, such as it was. And it turns out that being stoned in jail doesn’t enhance that experience either.
So, I took a pound of the same homegrown and spent a quiet season in a fire shack. A very quiet season. After a while I was hoping for a fire just to ease the tedium. Even that super-weed couldn’t make staring at trees interesting, and by then, poverty had also lost its allure. By the time I entered Berkeley—what we locals call “Cal”–for my graduate schooling, the idea of having a car that worked, shoes without holes, and a credit card began to have some appeal. Today, I suppose I’m somewhere left of center.
All of which is to say that, had I met the Thomas’s, Jeremy and Connie, and seen their “mansion on the hill” in my early days, I would have been self-righteously judgmental about the location of their house in a fragile coastal environment. Today I know there are more important battles to fight, and besides, entering into feuds with the in-laws is a losing battle on all counts. Best to adopt the old “live and let live,” a saying often displayed on plaques at AA meetings.
We arrived late after our cross-country flight, Blenheim Beach being over two hours away from the nearest airport. The lights from the rental car caught the scrub pines, sumac, and Indian grass that lined the road up to the house. Despite my let livingness, I still felt a pang as I saw again the frailty of this land, and we climbed the dune’s gentle rise. One couldn’t help but be impressed by the house, though, a classic you’d expect to see in Newport or Martha’s Vineyard, gables and all.
“Now, don’t start in about the Huey thing right away,” said Martha just before we got there.
“I won’t,” I said.
“You don’t want to get Jeremy upset first thing.”
“Because that’s what you do,” she said. “You start ranting and getting everyone riled up.”
“Yes you will.”
Pulling into the sandy driveway, I looked over at her.
“I won’t,” I said, though by now I wasn’t really sure.
As we got out of the car, I looked down toward the ocean lit by a full moon. Hard to believe anyone could think of putting houses on that land in the twenty-first century. But one must never underestimate the power of greed.
Looking up at the house I felt the old nostalgia for times well-spent. I suppose one never forgets the sweetness of a honeymoon, and the imprint from those few days went deep, deeper even than any professional or political opinions about the appropriateness of a house on this land.
The place was essentially built on stilts, with the lowest level an open space that functioned as a garage and storage area, and had showers for after-beach rinses. Jeremy came out from there and waved as we pulled up. Connie and Lexie shouted their hellos from the deck above.
A hardy East-coaster, Jeremy was tall and ruddy, reddish brown hair thick and wavy. He wore a plaid shirt and khakis with topsiders. He grabbed a suitcase as we exchanged the usual greetings.
Like a French building, the first floor of the house was what we’d usually call the second floor. That held the open living room/kitchen, with Jeremy’s office at the back looking out on a pine forest. The second floor had four bedrooms, including the master bedroom and the one where Martha and I usually stayed. The third floor was for the kids, three rooms under the eaves with dormer windows.
As usual, a jigsaw puzzle was spread out on a card table in the corner of the living room. Connie had made some sandwiches for us, so we sat down at the counter and scarfed down enough to hold us till morning. As the sisters stood side by side, their Irish heritage was apparent, a couple of Galway girls with their freckles and fair hair, laughing together like school girls. Jeremy and I watched, silently enjoying the reunion of our beautiful wives.
This open, and by day, light-filled space was decorated in nautical white and blue: white walls, slipcovers, and wooden chairs; blue area rugs, curtains, lamps, and vases. Black and whites from Connie’s career as a travel photographer sat on side tables and hung from the walls. Unlike the typical panoramas of nature, her photos captured small details, a rivulet running through a forest, a Tibetan child churning yak butter, the hooves of a camel herd kicking up dust in the Sahara. She’d met Jeremy after he bought a book on the Amazon rain forest that she had illustrated. I don’t know if she quit photography voluntarily or if Jeremy had pushed her, but I’d never seen her with a camera in her hand, despite the obvious gift she had for capturing the visual details of life.
Soon Natalie went off with her younger cousin and Connie told Martha that she’d help get her settled into our room. Before she went off, Martha looked at me and shook her head. I shook mine back at her. Nothing like the intuitive bond of husband and wife.
Jeremy and I slipped into his office to talk.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
“You have any sparkling water?”
He sneered, shook his head and went to the kitchen, returning with a glass of clear liquid for me and something amber for himself. The room had the feel of an old gentleman’s club with ancestral portraits on the wall, overstuffed chairs, oriental rugs, Tiffany lamps, and an antique rolltop desk stacked high with manuscripts. In the corner stood a pedestal with a few pages of manuscript under glass from Hemingway. I could never remember which book they were from, and I found the handwriting indecipherable, but I knew they were his father’s most precious possession. Under another, smaller glass was a ball used by Bobby Jones at his 1930 British Open victory, signed by the Grand Slam champion himself..
When Jeremy’s mother died, Connie had redone the rest of the place to make it more modern and convenient, putting in a new kitchen and opening up the living room, but Jeremy had held on to his space in here like some relic of a past age.
After the usual small talk about our trip East, I asked how things were going.
“It keeps getting worse,” he said. “This afternoon there were surveyors down there.”
Apparently Connie hadn’t told Jeremy not to bring up the Huey thing. Or else he was ignoring her.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “Huey’s going to be as proactive as he can, trying to force the issue.”
“But they’re scheduled to start construction in just over a week.”
“I know,” I said, trying to act unperturbed. I didn’t want to show him how worried I was. “Is a lawsuit still off the table for you?”
“Yes,” he replied curtly. “What do you hear from Bill Mathis?” asked Jeremy.
“I’ll call him in the morning and try to get together with him first thing Monday.” Jeremy’s scotch looked like the right drink for a room like this, though I’d never liked the stuff, so I wasn’t pining for a sip.
“I just can’t believe the Planning Commission would let this go through,” said Jeremy. “I’ve known these people for years.”
“A lot of things can influence a decision like that,” I said.
“Such as the town’s economics or…”
“Or the planning commissioners’ economics.”
“I don’t know,” said Jeremy. “I’m as cynical as the next guy, but selling out your town? This beach?”
“It’s been done.”
“What’s your gut feeling right now?” asked Jeremy. “How do you think this is going to play out?”
“My gut feeling is something is wrong,” I said. “All you have to do is look at that land, and you know there’s something stinking going on. How will it play out? I have no idea. That’s the problem with situations like this. You can’t count on them resolving the way they should or even a way that makes sense. There’s a lot of unpredictability involved.”
People like Jeremy, old money, power people don’t like unpredictability. I knew that, but I wanted to prepare him for the worst. This was one time his money might not be able to buy the outcome he sought. Not that I resented him his money. He was rich but not filthy rich. His great-grandfather started a small D.C. newspaper that under his grandfather eventually became a media empire. Over the years and generations, ownership got spread over a dozen cousins who finally wanted to cash out twenty years ago. Jeremy, being the only son of an only daughter, got a larger share than most and managed to hang on to the boutique publishing house, Decomar Books, known for coffee table art books, quirky novels, and clever children’s literature. His support of progressive causes made him an anomaly among many of the Richie Rich’s he was thrown in with at D.C. social functions. But progressive, or at least liberal, views tended to end at people’s doorsteps. I figured that his main issue with the Hueys was the potential loss of his view and the privacy of this house, that for him the environmental problems were just things to use to support his agenda. But maybe I was being too hard on him. I figured I’d find out over the next couple days.
“The thing is, Jeremy, even this house doesn’t belong on this land.”
He shook his head. “Don’t say that,” he said. “It may not be ideal environmentally, but we’ve always been stewards of this land. We’ve never exploited it.”
“Well, your family built a house on it.” I don’t know why I was giving him a hard time, since I was on his side. Sometimes, though, I get irritable when I watch someone drinking Scotch.
“Don’t start spouting your Berkeley idealism to me, Arthur,” he leaned forward. “There are a lot of bigger environmental issues to deal with than one house on a dune in Delaware.”
“Like twenty houses on a dune in Delaware?” He gave me the type of look that I figured he reserved for people he considered beneath him. “I’m sorry, Jeremy. I’m here to help you. I want to help you. But I’ve been working on these issues for my whole life. I can’t help but see the longer view.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Let’s just keep a shorter view for now.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“Good,” he said and sat back, knocking off the last of his drink. “Maybe I love this place too much. Is that a failing?”
“I love it, too,” I said. “But it won’t be here forever.” What I didn’t say was that it probably wouldn’t last another generation as this shoreline disappeared under the onslaught of the Atlantic’s inexorable rise.
When I got to our bedroom, Martha was paging through the magazine she’d bought at the airport.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“Did you start talking about Huey?”
“He brought it up,” I said. “What was I supposed to do, put tape over my mouth?”
“Not the worst idea you’ve ever had.”
“I just don’t want this thing to take over our vacation,” she said.
“Not if you don’t let it,” she said.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked. “Just ignore Jeremy’s problems? I can’t do that.”
“I know,” she said. “Just try to leave some time for other activities.”
“No problem,” I said. “We have several rounds of golf planned.”
“Well there’s always breakfast,” I suggested. “And you can’t play golf at night, so there’s that.”
“Wonderful,” she tossed the magazine on the floor and turned out her light.
* * *
The next morning the opportunity for participation in family beach activities arose, and with the previous evening’s words from the beloved still fresh I took it—the opportunity, that is. With two cups of Connie’s strong coffee to help suppress the effects of jet lag, I joined the exodus carrying beach chairs, towels, sunblock, snacks, drinks, boogie boards, and umbrellas down through the grassy dunes. I’d always assumed these delicate mounds were public lands, either part of Blenheim Beach, or like Cape Cod, a National Seashore. But apparently the Hueys while rummaging through old titles and deeds had discovered a parcel–really just a strip of dunes–that had belonged to one of the founders of Blenheim Beach, who chose the name because his father had been butler to the Duke of Marlborough. Personally, I would have been trying to forget that fact, but there you are.
In any case, once they’d tracked down the butler’s son’s only living descendant in a trailer park outside Ocean City, they had no trouble convincing the poor (literally) fellow to sell the rights for a few thousands dollars, a steal in every sense, since if there were any beachfront property available in DelMarVa, which there hadn’t been in thirty years, it would be worth about a billion dollars a square foot. One of the main reasons there’s no available land to build along the beach is for the very environmental reasons I’ve been talking about all along. Many of the towns here have banned any future development close to the water, but not Blenheim, where, apparently, the association with royalty makes them think they can do any damn thing they please. Or perhaps I’m being too hard on them. Or perhaps I’m not.
As we came to the border of Jeremy’s property he stopped and pointed at a sign that had been planted in the dunes: “Future site of Paradise Dunes, a luxury village. Construction starts, July 1, 20 .”
“Oh, god!” I spat out. “What the hell is a ‘luxury village’?”
“I hope we don’t find out,” said Connie pushing past me to get away from the sign as soon as possible.
“Gross!” said Natalie.
“I know,” said Lexie. “Can you believe it?”
The trail dipped down so you couldn’t see the water for a hundred yards, the sound of crashing waves muffled, then came up again to the final dune before dropping down to the beach. I paused there and let the others go ahead. Looking back at the lowland, clear marks of winter storms showed, the telltale lines of seaweed and driftwood. Thick tufts of beach grass, replenished by volunteers every spring, held the dunes together—barely.
I read once that musicians listen to music with a different part of their brain than non-musicians. They use the left side, the side of logic and math, to listen, while the ordinary person, having no conceptual knowledge of how music is put together, listens intuitively, emotionally, from the right brain. I figure it’s the same for environmental engineers: we see the land differently. We don’t just see “nature,” or plants, birds, or animals. Instead we see a system of interlocking parts functioning together. The shape of the dunes reflects the strength and direction of the prevailing winds; the places where plant growth is especially thick or thin tells me about the density and fertility of the underlying soil; the birds’ nesting choices tell me how storms affect the movement of the dunes; and it all guides my understanding about how this habitat functions. Everything I saw here told me this land should be left alone. Even our trooping through the dunes wasn’t the best way to treat them.
Hurricanes routinely brought the ocean crashing over the top here–there was a reason Jeremy’s house was on stilts—but no doubt developers had built in crazier places. Bill Mathis would hopefully be able to give me the details of the Hueys’ plan, but I could already imagine the seawall, dune repair, and elevated construction they would have to put in place. I had been fighting projects like this for twenty years, and I knew that zoning boards could be incredibly short-sighted if a pile of cash was dumped on the table. If you wanted to stop the project, it usually took some kind of federal intervention or specific environmental threat. Since I had no influence with the federal government, my focus would have to be the latter.
Jazz musicians, apparently develop the capacity to move between the two sides of the brain so that they can apply their broad musical knowledge in spontaneous improvisation. For me, this was the equivalent of trying to just sit back and appreciate the beauty, dropping all my academic training and just being in this place where land meets sea. So I took a deep breath and tried to shift perspective, drinking in the colors and shapes, the light and shadows, and the magic of seaside life.
Already the young beloveds were laughing as they ran toward the waves. The parents were setting up chairs and umbrellas, so I turned away from the dunes and headed down to join them. This was going to be an interesting vacation, if it even turned out to be a vacation.
One might find it laughable that a Californian would come East for the beaches, but the warmth and sunshine of Delaware in June was a vast improvement over the Bay Area’s Hibernian climate. Being on an actual summer beach in swimsuit and sunglasses represented a rare opportunity. This particular spot was exceptional because there were so few houses and access points that the beach was practically ours. If you looked south you could see the Blenheim Beach crowd a couple miles away, but most of them never wandered far from the hotdog stands and ice cream vendors. Not to mention the lifeguards whose stations ended almost a mile down.
When I was a kid no one would have questioned someone’s right to have a private enclave on the beach. Certainly Monterey, Pacific Grove, and of course Pebble Beach are full of refuges for the wealthy, although California has never allowed anyone to own the actual beach itself, always requiring easements from land owners to allow access to the shore through their properties. But I could just imagine what Emily Ko at the office would say about Jeremy and Connie’s setup here, “elitist one-percenters” and all that. And, while I couldn’t disagree with her that there was something unjust about a few privileged rich folks grabbing all the good stuff for themselves, when given the opportunity to partake of that stuff, I found it awfully pleasant. Such are the moral dilemmas we live with.
The three other adults faced the ocean shielded by umbrellas, paperbacks in hand. I sat down beside Connie on one of the beach chairs and gazed at the rolling waves.
“Perfect,” I said.
“Yeah, we’re just starting to have the good weather,” Connie looked over at me. “What do you think?”
I returned her look.
“I saw you looking over the dunes,” she said.
“Right,” I nodded. “There’s clearly something amiss. No one could seriously think that land is safe to develop. But, like I told Jeremy, this stuff happens. If the wrong people get the right breaks, they can do incredibly stupid and destructive things.”
“Words to live by,” she smirked. “But don’t you think this whole stretch is becoming vulnerable? Are we going to be able to hold on to it?”
I sighed. She’d hit on the larger problem.
“It’s going to be tough,” I said. What I thought was, “It’s going to be impossible,” but I didn’t want to say that to her.
“I don’t blame people for wanting to have a piece of this,” she said, holding her hand out to the sea. “But I guess we’re all on the clock in these dunes.”
Clearly Connie’s thinking about the situation was more nuanced than Jeremy’s.
I supposed that marrying into wealth was different from being raised on it. Not that Connie and Martha came from poverty, but their middle-class upbringing, the daughters of a pediatrician in suburban Maryland was very different from Jeremy’s.
The young beloveds came dripping out of the waves and wrapped towels around themselves.
“We’re going for a walk,” said Lexie to her mother. “Is that okay?”
“Sure,” said Connie. “Just be back in time for lunch.”
They dropped their towels and strolled south toward the crowds, mobile phones tucked into bikini bottoms.
“Wasn’t it last week they were building sand castles?” I said.
“I know,” said Connie. “Natalie has grown into a woman.”
Father’s of daughters are in a difficult position. On the one hand, they certainly want their young progeny to be attractive, but on the other, that very attractiveness creates an array of problems—the boyfriend situation being the most obvious.
As the warmth penetrated my jet-lagged brain, I began to drift off, the soothing sound of the waves lulling me to sleep. In another time such rest would have been uninterrupted until the body was satisfied and awoke naturally. But we don’t live in another time, so I was jolted awake by the ringer on my mobile which I had forgotten to silence.
The ID showed Bill Mathis, from DelMarva EcoDesign. I’d left him a message earlier. He got right to the point.
“This isn’t getting any simpler,“ he said. “The deeper I dig the more concerned I get.”
“What?” I asked.
“These Hueys, I mean, I knew they were connected, but now it looks like they’ve got someone on the governor’s staff.”
Connie was watching me with interest now.
“This could explain a lot,” said Bill. “Goulding does not have a stellar environmental record. He’s not exactly a climate change denier, but he’s close.”
“Great,” I said, feeling deflated. “What can we do?”
He didn’t have an answer for me, but we made plans to meet the next day to start to hash out some kind of strategy.
* * *
Two teenage girls walking down the beach in bikinis. What could possibly go wrong? I didn’t speak this rhetorical question when Connie pointed out that Lexie and Nat were late getting back for the noontime repast. Connie didn’t believe in lunch on the beach, so we’d be noshing cold cuts back at the house, but first we needed the good old progeny to return.
“Let me check where Nat is,” said Martha.
“What, did you get a drone since we arrived?” I asked.
“No, dumbhead,” her affectionate term for me—at least I thought it was affectionate. She held up her phone. “We have the technology right here.”
“Have you got pGap?” asked Connie, speaking a language I didn’t understand.
“No, I’m using TeenMe,” said Martha in this new language.
“What is all this?” I asked.
“You’ve got to get with the times,” said Jeremy who had started folding up the umbrellas. “We know where Lexie is at all times. It’s just GPS.”
“Here she is,” said Martha. “It looks like they’re down near the Blenheim pier.”
“Right,” said Connie, looking at her own device. “Let me bring up Google Earth. pGap links to it.”
“That’s great,” said Martha looking over her sister’s shoulder. “I need to get that.”
“Yeah, here they are,” said Connie.
“You can actually see them?” I asked.
“No!” Martha gave me the dumbhead look. “But you can see the place they are. What is that?” she asked Connie.
“I think it’s a lifeguard station.”
They looked at each other meaningfully and both started texting furiously.
I decided that helping Jeremy pack up was my role in this little drama. Clearly I was a bit player.
The sister’s phones pinged at virtually the same time. They both rapidly tapped more messages.
“That ought to do it,” said Connie.
“Works every time,” said Martha with a self-satisfied look.
“What?” I asked.
“Grounded with no phones if they aren’t back in twelve minutes,” said Connie.
These women clearly knew how to play parent hardball.
* * *
I’m afraid that for purposes of narrative brevity I have somewhat simplified the nature of the Huey golf tournament which was now fast approaching. In fact, the yearly Sandy Hills Golf Club Championship was not simply a mano a mano between the Hueys and us. Jeremy’s declaration that we would be playing them was based on a supposition. The actual format of the tournament involves two brackets. The winning teams in the two brackets face each other in the final. Jeremy, having seen that he and I and the Hueys were in opposite brackets made the assumption that we would each come out on top of our grouping. While there was a solid basis in logic for this prediction, what we are talking about here is golf, so logic doesn’t always apply.
Jeremy and I would have to defeat three other teams—as would the Hueys—before meeting in our projected match. The tournament would begin on Wednesday, and, this being Sunday, it was imperative that we hit the links ASAP. However, with parental and spousal obligations, not to mention the whole “Paradise Dunes” issue, this was becoming difficult.
The young beloveds, who had apparently spent the morning trying to attract the attention of the opposite sex, notably the Blenheim Beach Lifeguard Patrol, reverted to their pre-teen personas after lunch and demanded a round of the dreaded “mini-golf,” formerly known as “miniature.”
Jeremy and I were the designated parental units for this outing, giving the sisters/mothers time for grocery shopping. Fair enough. One could never complain about an obligation that kept one out of the grocery store. The problem for Jeremy and me was that attempting to putt on the carpeted greens of the local mini-golf course had the effect of throwing off one’s actual putting stroke. This artificial setting tended to make one hit the ball too hard when one returned to the actual grass of an actual golf course. I’d seen it many times. One usually needed at least a round or two to exorcise the poor habits and tendencies developed from playing these toy courses. But, what could one do? Duty called.
And so, off the four of us went in Jeremy’s luxury hybrid SUV.
As we came down the driveway, I fiddled with Jeremy’s satellite radio.
“How do you get a traffic report?” I said.
“What do we need a traffic report for?” asked Jeremy.
Not having an actual answer to this question, I continued to fiddle. The thing was more complicated than a downhill chip shot over a water hazard.
“My father is obsessed with traffic,” said Natalie from the back seat.
“Can you find something more…,” said Jeremy.
“He wants opera, Uncle Art,” said Lexie from beside Nat.
“It doesn’t have to be opera,” said Jeremy. “Just something more…”
“Fine.” I spun the dial and found a bunch of violins and French horns that sounded like a movie soundtrack. Jeremy tapped his ring on the steering wheel to the soulless rhythm.
How could someone with such impeccable taste in literature be inspired by Mantovani? One of the mysteries of life.
The main road into Blenheim Beach is a strip of highway running through marshland and pine forest. As Jeremy had implied, traffic or no, there was only one way to go, so reports were superfluous. The approach to the village is signaled by neon lights and plastic flags, strips of shops selling rubber rafts, buckets and shovels, boogie boards, umbrellas, and all things Blenheim. The distinctive BB logo, a kind of early New Yorker font, adorned every kind of garment, swim trunks, hoodies, sweatpants, t-shirts, pajamas, and panties; it could also be found on shot glasses, keyrings, beach balls, and tea sets. If one wished to invest in useless junk that would be lost, destroyed, or thrown away within weeks, Blenheim Beach was your spot. I know it’s the same at beach towns the world over, but still I can’t help being disturbed by the juxtaposition of all this flotsam in the shadow of a magnificent beach and an awe-inspiring ocean. Why must humans ruin a good thing?
I suppose I could bring the same philosophical inquiry to the question of mini-golf at the Pirates’ Cove Play Zone. However, in the vacation spirit, I tried to enjoy the bastardized version of my favorite game. And the truth is, once putter touched fingers, the competitive urge quickly took over.
Apparently I had passed on this particular gene to the young beloved as well, for very quickly she and I became locked in a mini-war. While Thomas father and daughter laughingly plunked balls off the course into the pebbly hole dividers and fetid ponds, Natalie and I carefully lined up putts, trying to figure the break on warped carpeting.
The Pirate theme didn’t go very far as the holes followed the typical loop-de-loops, ninety-degree turns, downhill, uphill, trapdoor, and tunnel drops. But the eighteenth hole had been renovated to capitalize on the Disney movies and theme park rides, with an eleven foot Johnny Depp straddling the carpeted fairway. You had to avoid the sword he swung lack and forth in front of him to reach the hole. When we got there, Natalie was one stroke up on me. Once my putt caromed off the blade and rolled back to my feet, it was only a question of whether Nat would get through. She did and closed it out with a birdie while I had to settle for a bogey.
“Yes!” she shouted, slapping five with her younger cousin. “Crush the parents!”
This lovely sentiment ringing in our ears, Jeremy and I went and ordered post-round milkshakes and french fries in the Snack Shack, while the girls returned to their default absorption in their phones. When we came out with the food they were nowhere in sight.
“Typical,” said Jeremy, carrying his tray to a picnic table.
“Where’d they go?” I stopped and looked around.
I spotted them at the entrance to the Pirate’s Cove Game Center.
“Boys,” I said, pointing a french fry toward where they were being chatted up by two tanned young men in swimsuits and u-shirts.
“I’ll just let them know the food’s here.” Jeremy took out his phone and clicked out a text.
After a few minutes they came strolling back, heads close together in consultation. Even as she whispered to Lexie, Natalie kept thumbing texts on her phone.
“You make some new friends?” asked Jeremy as the girls picked up their shakes.
“Hmm,” said Lexie with a straw in her mouth. “They’re lifeguards. We met them this morning.”
While I’m sure the young men were competent to rescue drowning children and perform CPR on heart attack victims, somehow I didn’t think their interest in our daughters was in guarding their lives.
Natalie managed to continue texting with one hand while scarfing french fries with the other. I looked up to see that the taller of the two lifeguards was showing the other what was on the screen of his phone. The shorter one punched the other in the shoulder and they walked into the Game Center.
Boys of course are the scourge of fathers of teenage girls, but if there was a sub-category of boys more scourgeful than the others it had to be lifeguards. Tanned, muscled, and glamorous sitting above the hoi polloi on the beach, they represented everything the teenage girl desired. How was a father to weaken their allure?
Finally Jeremy and I got to the actual, real, maxi-golf course after taking the girls back to the house and leaving them in the care of their mothers. I deliberated on the way over the wisdom of informing the beloved about her daughter’s interactions with the tanned ones, however with no actual crimes observed, I felt I might appear to be an alarmist. I just determined to pay close attention to the young beloved’s lifeguard interests. After all, the non-lifeguard boyfriend at home had already proved his worth. No reason to be pursuing other boyfriend opportunities as far as I was concerned. Of course, it didn’t actually concern me.
Sandy Hills Golf Club is a great layout, distinctly different from anywhere I tee up in NorCal. Hard to explain the difference, but just the humid beach environment, the sandy waste areas, and dense pine forests create a whole different feel. It’s a more expensive place, well-maintained and not overplayed like some of my public courses. What makes it particularly interesting to me, though, is the grass.
Where my NorCal courses use a coarse, thin grass on fairways, Sandy Hills fairways are smooth as velvet and twice as thick. This gives them not only a nice, soft surface for hitting off, but a beautiful look as well. The greens have the feel of something royalty would walk on, and they roll straight and true. Of course, they are soaked in chemicals, but I’d never convince these clubs to do otherwise, so I tried to enjoy the benefits and forget the damage being done to the soil.
These greens are much bigger than the ones at home. I’ve noticed that the older courses like mine feature smaller greens, but the newer ones have massive complexes, undulating and multi-leveled. Getting on the green by no means guarantees a two putt.
So, each time I come east to play with Jeremy I have to make adjustments to my game.
Today we were going to start with a long practice session on the driving range and neighboring putting area, the one donated by the Hueys after their shameful celebration last year. From the start it was evident Jeremy’s game was off. Drives veering off in any direction, irons shanked and skyed, wedges topped or chunked. Although he hadn’t had much time to play lately, that wasn’t enough to explain this kind of regression in his ball striking. It had to be stress.
It is an odd phenomenon that mental concerns can affect the golf swing. After all, what does a thought have to do with the skillful execution of a movement you have performed thousands of time? Unless he was literally standing over the ball thinking, “I hope the Hueys don’t build in front of my house,” it’s hard to understand how Jeremy’s worries could affect his ball flight. But there it was.
Saying anything about it would only makes things worse, so I let him keep striking balls hoping he’d figure something out. However, the arrival of a black Escalade of mammoth proportions only served to exacerbate the situation. Although I had no idea who was pulling this monster with blackout windows into the handicapped spot behind the driving range, the frozen look on Jeremy’s face gave me a clue.
When the driver emerged, I didn’t recognize Clement Huey. This man was tall and slim, unlike Huey, who I knew to be significantly overweight.
“Who’s that?” I whispered to Jeremy.
“It’s him,” he said.
I looked again. Out of the passenger side came an overweight and younger version of the driver, who I recognized to be Clement Jr., known, I remembered now, as Boxer. Clement Sr. must have lost a hundred pounds.
Boxer went to the back of the SUV and dragged out two monogrammed golf bags, clubs shining in the afternoon sun.
Huey, adorned in a complete purple Rickie Fowler Puma outfit from flat-brimmed cap to violet saddle shoes, spotted Jeremy, who had turned back to his basket of practice balls.
“Thomas!” shouted Huey in a voice as gruff as Howlin’ Wolf. “How you doin’, bud?” He strolled over in our direction.
Jeremy didn’t turn around, but kept smacking balls left and right.
“Hey,” said Huey as he came toward me. “You’re the ringer from Cali we beat last summer, right?” He reached for my hand, and I grudgingly took his. I expected something limp, but his handshake was firm enough. It occurred to me at that moment that he had never shaken my hand after beating us last year, a serious lapse in golf etiquette, but one which had been gravely overshadowed by his and his son’s other crimes.
“Arthur Bell,” I said. “Jeremy’s brother-in-law?”
“’Bell’—that’s funny,” he said.
I stared uncomprehendingly.
“’Ringer.’ ‘Bell.’ Get it?” he laughed. “How you hittin’ em, Arty?”
“Fine.” Up close it was apparent he’d had work done. The former jowels were pulled tight, the forehead frozen by botox.
“That was quite a match last time, huh?” He looked over my shoulder. “Now, Thomas, there’s no need for this chilly reception.”
Jeremy turned and pointed his five-iron at Huey. “Don’t fuck with me, Huey. I’m not playing your game.”
Huey put his hands up in mock surrender. “Don’t take it personally, bud. Business is business.”
Jeremy turned away and for the first time all day hit a ball long and straight. Some people play better angry, I guess.
Huey turned back to his son. “Boxer, find some balls and get us set up!” he hollered across the range, disturbing half a dozen backswings. “Well, fellas, happy hunting,” he said and walked over to his son.
The reality of what we were facing now struck me head on. While discussing Environmental Impact Reports and dune erosion, I could remain aloof, engaged only on the professional level. But seeing Huey again, even in his newly minted body, brought up all my prejudice about rapacious developers and the insanity of humans who think they can just treat the earth like one more “resource” to be exploited, as though we didn’t exist solely at the pleasure of natural forces, forces that could just as easily become displeased and end our existence in the blink of a meteor’s impact.
And, man, did I want to kick his ass on the golf course.
Apparently the young beloved’s competitive language had infiltrated my consciousness.
Perhaps, I thought, it was time for a change of venue.
“Let’s do some chipping,” I said, putting away my driver and picking up my bag.
“Might as well,” said Jeremy, shoving his five iron into his bag. “I can’t do anything here.”
I tried to ignore the small brass plaque identifying the short game area as “The Clement P. Huey Putting Complex,” and keep Jeremy focused on his short game.
This area provided a less fraught setting for letting go of mental encumbrances. While the driving range tended to bring out the aggressive and ambitious elements of a golfer’s personality, the subtlety required of chipping and putting tended to foster calm and concentration.
Sure enough, once Jeremy had lofted a few pitches and chips onto the green, his entire demeanor changed.
When we moved onto the green and started a putting game we liked to play, he started draining ten and twelve footers like a pro. Unfortunately, as expected, my own putting suffered from post mini-golf trauma.
“That guy lost some serious weight,” I said after I was sure Jeremy had calmed down.
“I think he had that stomach operation,” he said.
“And some work on his face, too.”
“I think you actually have to do that once you drop all the weight. There’s all this extra skin you have to deal with.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Can we get out and play?”
As we walked toward the clubhouse a late model BMW pulled into the parking lot. Jeremy did a double take.
“What the hell?” he said.
I gave him a curious look.
“Pat Emory,” he said. “The guy who owns the frozen custard stand in Blenheim.”
“So, he’s on the Planning Commission, and last time I saw him he was driving a fifteen year old minivan.”
“Frozen custard sales must be booming.”
We looked at each other in silent agreement. Another path of investigation had opened up.
We went into the palatial clubhouse to get a tee time. You had to navigate rows of golf shirts, pullovers, and shorts that hung from racks to get to the counter. Logo-emblazoned hats perched on shelves, Titleist, Callaway, Taylor Made, Nike, Puma, and Under Armour. Then there were the Orioles’ Titleist hats and the Nationals’ Callaway hats. Pyramids of boxes of balls stood on tables, and one wall was devoted entirely to golf gloves.
The elderly man behind the counter couldn’t figure out how to use his computer, and we stood for five minutes waiting for him to figure it out until a college-age employee came by, punched a couple keys and handed us a receipt. As a member, Jeremy only had to check in, not actually pay to play. The course is a public/private hybrid that gives members priority for tee times, locker privileges, and discounts in the pro shop and restaurant, as well as unlimited golf for themselves and a guest.
This far inland from the cooling breeze off the beach, the day had turned hot and humid. Only being used to the low California humidity, I found myself dripping sweat as we pushed our handcarts to the first tee.
With the course wide open, we’d decided not to keep score, and each of us hit multiple balls so we could practice different shots. After hitting our drives we would walk to our balls, hit them, and then choose another spot to hit from. Usually this meant going into the rough on the left or right side of the course. Sometimes we’d put ourselves behind a tree to practice punching out. At other times, we’d create devilish chip shots on downhill lies, or buried bunker shots to practice blasting out.
In some ways it was more fun than a typical round because nothing mattered, and you got to just flail away with no repercussions. By the time we finished the round I thought we were ready to begin the tournament. Both of us were finding our swings and putting well.
Jeremy’s game is different from mine, more dependent upon power and less on finesse. His drives can carry two-hundred-sixty yards, a good thirty yards further than mine. But he has a harder time hitting it straight and his touch on chips and putts isn’t as deft as mine. When we play against each other, either one of us can win, depending on what kind of a day we’re having. It’s a good rivalry.
Somewhere on the back nine Jeremy paused before his tee shot.
“That Beemer,” he said.
“I just keep thinking,” he said. “What if Huey bought Pat Emory’s vote on the Planning Commission? Then what?”
“Well, it’s bribery, right?”
“Yeah, but what are you going to do about it? Even if you can prove it.”
“I don’t know, but we can’t just let it go.”
Jeremy shook his head in consternation and smacked his drive down the middle.
“The whole thing makes me sick,” he said as he tucked his driver back in his bag and started down the fairway.
As we came off the course at eighteen in high spirits we saw the Hueys driving a cart to the tenth tee. Huey gave us a wave and toothy smile as he drove by.
“I want to shove those teeth down his throat,” growled Jeremy.
“Take it easy,” I said. “We’re going to stop this Paradise Dunes crap. I don’t know how, but no houses are going up on that beach.”
An after-round reflection with one’s partner is one of the joys of the game. This often includes recollecting the better shots while considering how low one’s score might have been without one or two flubs. However, there was little time for such pleasures as before even exiting the Sandy Hills parking lot, my phone rang and Emily’s name appeared.
“Why are you working today?” I asked as I answered. “It’s Sunday.”
“I know, Art,” she said. “I’m home, but I just thought I should call.”
“What is it?”
“Something funny’s going on. Yesterday I went in to clean up some paperwork and Brian and Trevor were there alone in the office. They acted strange when I came in the door.”
“Whatever they were doing, they didn’t want me to see it. Brian quickly changed screens on his computer, and Trevor started shuffling papers. I just…it concerned me.”
“What’s your concern?”
“Well, now that Dilworth is going to have to do the whole EIR for the hotel project, I wouldn’t want us to lose their business. I mean, we’re the ones that screwed up the first round of this.”
“What’s that have to do with whatever Brian and Trevor are doing?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just have a feeling.”
I trusted Emily and her feelings. She had an instinct you couldn’t teach.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I said. “Will you keep an eye on this and let me know what you find out?”
After I hung up I turned to Jeremy and said, “Work stuff.”
I’d often bounced Bell E.D. problems off Jeremy who had a clear-eyed business sense. As we drove home through the scrub pine forests, I explained the ins and outs of the Trevor/Brian/Dilworth problems.
“I’d watch out for those guys,” he said.
My stomach turned over as he said it. I’d been too busy the last couple days to think about business, but suddenly I felt vulnerable, that something might be happening beyond my control. Here I was trying to have something resembling a holiday, and instead my intestinal tract felt like it was being squeezed through a strainer.
When we pulled into Jeremy’s driveway and saw the Volvo station wagon we gave each other a look, and my stomach flipped again. Gerald Walker, Martha and Connie’s father, was here.
Most husbands of course, must endure a father-in-law, unless by some good fortune (for the husband, not the father-in-law) he is no longer with us when you marry your beloved. Gerald Walker was most certainly still with us and looked not to be leaving the stage for some time, despite his eighty some years. The widower was made of iron—or maybe plastic, because iron can rust, but plastic will survive the coming apocalypse. Tall and slim, he worked out on a rowing machine for two hours a day. Fortunately, he hated golf.
A bright man, now retired from his pediatric practice, he had the habit of treating everyone in the family like one of his patients. That is, like a child.
One tried, truly, to roll with it, to let it go, to be open-minded, forgiving, compassionate, equanimous even, but the man had a way. My first thought on seeing the Volvo was that perhaps I should skip dinner and go to an AA meeting. Beach meetings could be jolly affairs with all the vacationers whooping it up. Of course, the beloved would never stand for such an abdication of my son-in-lawly duties, so I bucked up and went to face the music, though I feared it would be a dirge.
It turned out that Gerald had come down from Landover with Walker, Jeremy and Connie’s son who had just finished his junior year at Georgetown. Giving Gerald’s last name as first name to their first-born had been a winner for Walker who was Gerald’s favorite.
I suppose Walker is a preppie, if that’s still a relevant term. It’s hardly something that registers in California anymore. For Natalie I think it just means a style of clothing she might see in a J. Crew catalog. Walker did dress that way in tailored khakis, blazers, and loafers. Taller than his father with thick, sandy hair, a lock falling over his eyes, his regular features were conventionally handsome. I think Natalie used to have a crush on him.
The girls were parked in front of the big screen TV with Walker watching a Nationals-A’s game. Connie and Martha worked the kitchen, with Connie seasoning slabs of salmon and Martha building a salad. Gerald sat on a stool with a large glass of red wine and a crossword puzzle.
“The warriors return,” pronounced Martha as she dried her hands on her Blenheim Beach apron. I gave her a husbandly peck on the lips. “How’d it go?”
“How are you, Gerald?” said Jeremy shaking hands with his father-in-law who rose and removed his reading glasses.
“Good to see you,” I said, next in line. “How was the drive down?”
“Walker is an excellent driver,” he said. “I gave him the keys, and sat back and relaxed.”
Walker roused himself from the couch to hug me and shake his father’s hand.
“Huey showed up,” I said to Connie.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Was that bad, Jeremy?”
“No, no,” he lied. “He just came to hit balls.”
“Did you talk to him?” she asked.
I knew Jeremy never wanted to drag Connie into his dramas, so I didn’t add any details.
There is, I’m sure you know, nothing so delightful as a summer supper. One of Connie’s innovations on the old homestead was screening in a side of the wraparound porch and putting a big wooden dinner table out there, a beautiful piece she picked up on a trip to Provence. French doors from the kitchen allowed easy access, and as we sat down, Connie enlisted the young beloveds to bring out the trays of fish, potatoes, vegetables, and salad.
A breeze was coming up from the ocean, the sun still bright in the west. Along with the crash of waves on the beach and the titter of birds in the surrounding trees, it all created a perfect atmosphere for a family meal.
Walker filled us in on his spring semester and his summer plans. A poli-sci major he’d arranged an internship at the State Department, a prelude he hoped to a diplomatic career. Taller than his father, with his mother’s good looks and his grandfather’s brains, one could imagine him facing down the Russian ambassador in a high stakes international crisis.
Inevitably, though, the conversation turned to Paradise Dunes.
“So, you’re still trying to stop the development?” asked Gerald.
Furtive glances passed between the other adults. Jeremy finished off his wine and poured another glass.
“Yes, Gerald,” said Jeremy impatiently. “We’re still trying to stop it.”
Gerald’s libertarian views had spoiled more than one family meal. Years ago Connie and Martha had made Jeremy and me agree to avoid any political discussion when he was around. They insisted that family harmony trumped the need to voice our opinions with the patriarch. But this was different. This was personal.
“I really don’t understand your stance,” said Gerald. “This man—what’s his name?”
“Huey,” we all chimed in.
“Mr. Huey owns the land, if I’m not mistaken.”
“That’s right,” said Jeremy, leaning back in his chair. He had that “here-we-go-again” look.
“Well, don’t you believe in private property, Jeremy? Are you some kind of communist that thinks the government should be able to take people’s land away from them?”
“Come on, Gerald,” an edge came into Jeremy’s voice. This wasn’t looking good. “No one’s trying to infringe on his damn property rights.”
“No reason to get steamed up,” said Gerald.
“This guy is a predator. He buys land no one should build on, lures in people who don’t know any better to buy it, walks away with a huge profit, and community and environment be damned.”
“Well, that’s capitalism, isn’t it?” said Gerald looking around as if he expected our support. “Buyer beware, right? I mean, if we tried to get rid of every greedy person in the country the economy would collapse.”
“Who wants dessert?” Connie chirped. “Walker, will you help the girls clear the plates?”
“Sure, mom.” He and the young beloveds stood up and got to work.
“God knows, Jeremy,” Gerald continued, oblivious to his daughter’s wish to divert the conversation. “If your grandfather hadn’t been such a good businessman, you wouldn’t even have this view, would you?”
“My grandfather had integrity, he never—“
“Never say never,” interrupted Gerald. “When I was in high school, his newspapers—“
“Dad!” shouted Connie. “Stop it! Enough of this.”
The table froze. This was not Connie. She didn’t shout people down at dinner.
“We get it,” she went on. “You and Jeremy disagree about private property or whatever. Can we please, just have a pleasant family dinner?”
That seemed far beyond the realm of possibilities right now, but I appreciated the old girl’s effort.
“Certainly,” said Gerald, tapping his lips with his napkin. “I merely wanted to point out—“
“Please!” said Connie. “Don’t point out anything else.”
“Oh, well if you’re going to put a gag order on me—“
“Come on, Dad,” said Martha. “Connie just wants a civilized meal.”
I was waiting for him to tell us that private property rights were the basis of civilization, but fortunately, he must have figured it wasn’t worth it. I breathed a sigh of relief.
The youngsters brought out dessert, a fruit tart Martha had put together, topped with vanilla ice cream. Peace was restored. At least for now.
* * *
While staying with my in-laws, my cooking skills were rarely called upon, and with my frequent absences to pursue golfing activities, I needed to find some way of contributing to the general household duties that would put me in good stead with the sister-in-law. I discovered years ago that offering to do the dishes was the quickest way to a hostess’s heart. Thus I could be found some minutes later scraping, rinsing, and inserting the plates, glasses, and silverware into the dishwasher, naturally only doing so in the method prescribed by Connie. Gerald, Walker, and Jeremy had installed themselves in front of the baseball game, somewhere they could all agree in rooting for the Nats against my A’s.
Connie and Martha and the young beloveds circled me drying pots and pans, putting away leftovers, and cleaning surfaces. Apparently I was the only one in the family not bound by gender stereotypes.
“You girls seemed to make some new friends today, didn’t you?” I said as I rinsed off some forks.
“Really?” asked Connie. “Who did you meet?” she asked Lexie.
“Dad, don’t,” said Natalie.
“What?” asked Martha.
“He always does this,” said Natalie. “He’s trying to embarrass us.”
“Is it working?” I asked.
A shout and a groan came from the couch. I looked up to see a replay of the A’s left fielder, a new guy among many others they seemed to acquire every season, climbing the outfield fence to rob the Nats of a homer. The next shot showed Bryce Harper slamming his helmet to the ground. I silently celebrated, not wishing to offend the home fans.
“Well, at least you’ll be safe in the water.”
“Daddy, stop it!” Natalie threw down a dishtowel and stomped away almost in tears. Lexie followed her out of the room.
“Really, Art,” said Martha. “What’s the point?”
“I was just kidding…”
“It’s not funny,” she said.
The dishwasher was full, so I put some soap in and asked Connie how to start it.
She punched a couple buttons and it came to life.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Connie.
“Yeah, well, you do have a way,” she said. “So I take it they were flirting with some lifeguards.”
“Cute ones,” I said. “Does Lexie have a boyfriend?”
“No, she’s been too caught up in her studies and sports.”
“Well, just wait,” I said, taking off my apron. “Nat is dating a kid back in Berkeley, and just as I’m finally getting used to that, she starts flirting with lifeguards.”
“I guess,” I said. I looked over at the men on the couch. I had no desire to watch a game with fans of my opponent. Meanwhile, Martha and Connie were pouring themselves glasses of wine and heading out to enjoy the last sunlight on the porch. Having also alienated the young beloveds, I decided my best chance for friendly company would be an AA meeting after all.
* * *
The Blenheim Beach Sunday night meeting was about to begin when I slipped in the back door of the clapboard meeting house on a side street in the middle of town. The walls of the foyer were plastered with announcements for all kinds of meetings, AA, NA, OA, MA, ACA, and some “A’s” I didn’t even recognize. A greeter shook my hand and gave me a little card with a list of Twelve Principles associated with the Twelve Steps. Though I knew that Step Twelve said we should “practice these principles in all our affairs,” I’d never seen something like this, actually delineating them. I took a seat and perused the card. “Honesty, Hope, Faith, Courage,” it began. That sounded good, if challenging. I had to think about how those words correlated with the Steps themselves.
Hanging from the walls were old life preservers, life jackets, oars, lobster traps, and fishnets. Suspended with anchor rope over our heads was a red and white Blenheim Beach Rescue Team rowboat.
The secretary in the front of the room banged on the table and called for the meeting to begin, so I looked up. The room was packed, presumably with sober vacationers, people in shorts and flip-flops chatting and drinking weak coffee. As the secretary started the meeting, things quieted down and the last people standing took their seats.
While each meeting has its own flavor, almost everywhere I’ve been certain rituals are adhered to. A preamble is read, a kind of AA Mission Statement, then an invitation for newcomers to introduce themselves. One of the bedrocks of the AA philosophy is that new people, those struggling just to get on their feet with their recovery, are the most important ones in the room. The founders back in the 1930’s discovered that helping others was the key to sustaining their own sobriety, and that belief has remained central to the program ever since.
So the secretary asked if anyone was in his or her first thirty days of sobriety. Quite a few “new” people raised their hands—new in quotes because many of them aren’t really new, but were coming back from relapse. However, in the spirit of forgiveness and renewal, they are treated with the same kindness as someone walking in for the first time. As voices from around the room announced, “My name is ________ and I’m an alcoholic,” I craned my neck to see the faces so I could possibly connect with them during a break or after the meeting.
A high-pitched male voice came from the back of the room, “My name is Clement, and I have twenty-four days of sobriety.” I snapped around and saw Boxer sitting in the back row. He didn’t appear to see me, and I wasn’t sure he’d know me if he did. His state of intoxication at the tournament last year might have erased that memory, and we hadn’t gotten closer than thirty yards at the range today.
When the secretary asked if there was anyone visiting from outside the area, twenty hands went up. I introduced myself as “Arthur, an alcoholic from California,” because I’d found that when East Coasters heard you were from Berkeley, they thought you must be some kind of radical. For many of the people in this area, the idea of California was radical enough.
As the meeting continued with a speaker who was visiting from New Jersey, I thought about Boxer—or Clement as he had introduced himself. The kid was in his early twenties, son of a rich, powerful, and overbearing real estate developer. The way his father treated him today, yelling across the range, expecting him to carry the clubs and set everything up, was more like a servant than a son. Locked in this battle with the Hueys, I had let my antagonism toward the father include the son as well—all peas in the same pod in my mind. But whenever I saw someone in a meeting that I knew from outside, something changed in my attitude. Here was this kid, obviously struggling with drinking, maybe drugs too, since few contemporary alcoholics limit their substance abuse to booze, with someone who was maybe an abusive father, or at least a dominating and bullying one. No longer could I see him as an enemy. That all changed as soon as he raised his hand and said his name in this room.
It didn’t change anything about the Paradise Dunes situation—or the golf tournament, for that matter—but it certainly provided some nuance to what had seemed like pretty much a black and white situation up to then.
After the meeting I introduced myself.
“I thought that was you,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Yeah, I’ve been sober for a while,” I said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Thanks,” he said. “
“So you said you’ve got twenty-four days?”
“Yeah, well I relapsed after I got out of rehab last month, but I came right back.”
“Good,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m still living at home, so I need to get out of there.”
“Yeah,” I said, avoiding saying what I thought about living with his father. “Are you working?”
“Not really,” he said. “I do some stuff for my dad, but it’s not really a job.”
“Well, my experience is that sometimes it’s best not to live at home.”
“Yeah, I haven’t had time to look, but that’s the plan,” he said. “I just have to get on my feet.”
I handed him my card. “Here’s my number,” I said. “You can call or text me anytime.”
“Thanks, Arthur,” he said. “You can still call me Boxer if you want.”
On the ride back to Jeremy’s I realized that I had to tread carefully here. What was my first obligation? To help “the other alcoholic,” as we say, or to help my brother-in-law? Right now there was no particular conflict between those two options, but that could change. Then I might be facing a very sticky situation, one that could test my loyalties in ways I’d prefer to avoid.
* * *
Things were quiet when I got back, just Walker and Nat watching Sports Center. She waved to me as I walked through the living room. All forgiven. One good thing about teenagers—or maybe it was just Natalie, I didn’t have enough experience with them to know—they forgot as quickly as they blew up.
Martha had her laptop open in bed.
“How was your meeting?” she asked, lowering her reading glasses.
“Good.” I didn’t always honor the anonymity of people I saw in meetings, but this time I thought it was best. “How did the rest of the evening go?”
“Fine,” she said. “I’m sorry about my father.”
“He does have strong opinions,” I sighed.
“I know,” she said wearily. “He just seems so angry sometimes. I don’t understand it. He used to be so much more open-minded. He even voted for Clinton in ’92.”
“Not Ross Perot?”
She let that comment slide.
Gerald was clearly the exception to my “people get less radical as they age rule.” Then again, so were a whole lot of cranky old people. I might have to review my rule.
“I got a weird call from Emily before,” I said and went on to tell her about Trevor and Brian huddling mysteriously in the office.
“What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going to call Eddie Hauser tomorrow and see if he knows anything.”
“The guy you went to grad school with?”
“Yeah, he’s the Dilworth Director of Environmental Planning and Mitigation.”
“Well, the whole problem with the two of them started with the Dilworth Initial Study, so it seems like a good place to start.”
“Between your business and the Huey thing, this isn’t much of a vacation.”
“What am I supposed to do?” I said. “And look what you’re doing. Working on your novel.”
“That’s different,” she said, and closed up her laptop.
“Are you trying to start a fight?”
“Are you?” As long as we were asking rhetorical questions I figured I might as well keep it going.
“Then lets not.”
Nothing like the harmonious relations of a happily married couple.
The morning found the family dispersed in as many different directions as a beginning golfer’s practice shots. Connie and Martha drove off to play tennis; Gerald put on a sun hat and went out for a long walk; Walker went to the local community college to swim laps; the girls went to the beach; and Jeremy retreated to his office to review the pile of manuscripts waiting there. My own plan was a meeting with Bill Mathis of DelMarVa Ecodesign, so I drove into Blenheim Beach.
Instead of meeting at his office, I’d suggested we get together at the boardwalk. What was the point of being on vacation if I had to spend it in some sterile conference room? In my shorts and flip-flops I could at least look as if I were enjoying myself.
One easily forgets the day of the week when untethered from the old nine-to-five, and the boardwalk atmosphere had nothing Monday-like about it. Out-of-state SUVs vying for the few parking spots, beachgoers of all ages lugging beachgoer gear toward the sea, and the forced festiveness of discount merchandise spilling onto the sidewalks was the same every day from mid-June till Labor Day. When Martha and I had been here for our honeymoon that long-ago November, the boarded up shops had a feeling of desolate loneliness. The stuff of Bruce Springsteen songs. But why imagine that on a sunny June morning? The very question pointed to my state of mind.
Mathis had suggested meeting at the statue of the town’s founder, the son of the butler, which stood at the end of Main Street where the boardwalk began. But when I go to the boardwalk, something had changed. A new, super sleek, Euro-style bathroom stood not far from the founder. An attendant in a white uniform emblazoned with the BB seemed to be controlling the electric door that slid open with a Star Wars “whoosh” each time he pressed a button. A line of people were standing in line, but most of them seemed to just want to look inside this space capsule.
In his sportcoat and perma-press slacks, Mathis was easy to pick out in the beach crowd. He and the butler’s son were the only ones dressed formally.
We shook hands and he introduced me to an older gentleman in cargo shorts and a safari jacket. A binocular case hung from his shoulder.
“Arthur, this is Fran Cutler,” he said. “He’s very familiar with the local habitats. Heads the local birdwatching organization.”
“I’m the secretary,” Cutler corrected as he shook my hand. Short but with great posture, so he didn’t seem as old as his wrinkles implied, he held my hand an extra moment. “I understand you’re related to the Thomas’s.”
“I’m an in-law,” I said. “From California.”
His look suggested I’d arrived from alien territory.
“Good family,” he said. “I knew the old man when I was a boy. Quite a birder himself,” he chuckled.
From what I knew about Jeremy’s family, which wasn’t that much, “the old man” must have referred to his grandfather.
“What’s the young one’s name?”
“Jeremy?” He couldn’t mean Walker.
“Right,” said Cutler. “His mother was a beauty. Out of my class, of course, but then it didn’t work out so well with her husband did it?”
I wanted to get off this recitation of the Thomas family tree, so I turned to Mathis.
“Shall we get some coffee and sit down?” I asked.
Beverages in hand, we found an empty bench that gave us a view of the sunblocked masses and the gentle waves hitting the shore. The sound of the ocean blending with screaming children, yelling mothers, and whistling lifeguards created a strangely comforting cacophony, one that, just as much as the smell of hot dogs and frying grease, represented some essence of summer.
“Fran thinks there’s a good chance you can stop the Hueys’ development based on endangered birds in the dunes,” said Mathis.
“Great,” I said, turning to Cutler, who had chosen tea over the trendy coffee offered at the beach cafe. “What species have you seen?”
“Seen?” he asked, looking out at the ocean as though the answer to the question might come in on one of the waves lapping the shore. “Haven’t ‘seen’ anything per se.”
I looked questioningly at Mathis. What had he brought me here? I thought birdwatchers saw birds. Silly me.
“Has anyone seen anything?” I asked. “Or, I don’t know, heard about anyone seeing anything?”
“The Blenheim Beach habitat is home to myriad creatures, large and small,” he said as if reading from a brochure. “From the beach mite to the majestic Bald Eagle, the dunes provide refuge for a diversity of life that represents the timeless cycles of nature.”
“I think what Arthur is trying to find out,” said Mathis, “is if we can show there are any threatened or endangered species that live here, or visit here, so we can stop the Hueys’ development efforts.”
“Why not just sue the bastards?” said Cutler.
Just then I caught sight of some familiar bikinis down by the nearest lifeguard stand. I stood up and went to the rail of the boardwalk, and sure enough, the young beloveds were chatting up one of the tanned ones, his nose slathered white. My genetically determined paternal instinct was to hop the rail, climb the stand, slug the kid, and drag the girls away. Fortunately a not-so-still, not-so-small voice inside me, one that sounded distinctly like my wife, shouted, “Hold up, buster!” After all, they too were only following their own genetic imperative, and the truth is, I’d already gotten into enough trouble trying to rat them out about their encounter at the mini-golf course. Best to leave well enough alone. After all, what could happen here on a public beach teeming with families?
I turned back to see Mathis and Cutler watching me with interest. I realized some explanation was due.
Pointing my thumb over my shoulder I said, as casually as possible, “Just spotted my daughter and my niece.”
“Fran was just telling me one other thing,” said Mathis. “You want to tell Art?” he asked Cutler.
“It’s the Plover,” he said, looking around furtively as if passing on state secrets. “It’s endangered,” he said.
“Yeah?” I waited, but I could see he needed prompting. “And do they nest on the beach here?”
“No one’s seen one in about,” he looked up, calculating. “I’d say five years.” He looked at his fingers seeming to count again. “Yeah, that’s right. It was Dorothy Hammler. She saw one right down your way.”
“Do you have a phone number or an address?” I asked. I was excited now. Maybe this doofus was really on to something.
“I think so,” said Cutler, pulling a small, tattered address book out of his pocket.
“Do you have a pen?” I asked Mathis. He handed me a ballpoint and a notepad.
“Here it is,” said Cutler, and he read out the address and phone number.
“That’s great,” I said. “I’ll give her a call right now.”
“Oh, no you can’t do that,” said Cutler.
I waited for an explanation.
“Dorothy passed away two years ago.”
I looked at Mathis and shook my head. He shrugged apologetically.
Cutler looked from Mathis to me.
“Well, you’ve been a big help,” I said, trying not to sound as sarcastic as I felt. I shook his hand.
“Don’t you want to know what kind of bird it was?” said Cutler.
“You said a plover,” I said. I was ready to finish this conversation.
“That doesn’t tell you anything,” he chuckled. “There must be a dozen species of plover.”
“Okay,” I said.
“It was a Jersey Plover,” he said. “Get it?”
Mathis and I exchanged a confused look.
“Jersey,” said Cutler. “Isn’t that where the Hueys come from? It would be pretty ironic if a bird from his home state brought down his development, huh?”
I nodded as though I thought this was a reasonable line of thought, while my own thinking was, How quickly can I get rid of this guy. I thanked him for his help and asked Mathis to stay for a moment. Cutler just stood there, so I took Mathis’ arm and guided him up the boardwalk.
“Do you know Pat Emory?” I asked.
“The frozen custard guy?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Jeremy says he’s on the planning commission. We saw him at the golf course yesterday driving a new Beemer.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Jeremy thinks a car like that is out of the range of a small business man like that. Unless he had some help.”
“I don’t know,” said Mathis.
He didn’t have an answer, but said he’d think about it.
He promised to stay in touch, and I walked back toward my car, which was parked on a side street away from the crowds. Now the excitement of the beachgoers just felt like another irritant in a long list.
On the way, my phone started to twitch in my pocket. I didn’t recognize the number or even the area code.
“Is this Arthur?” said an unfamiliar voice.
“This is Clement—Boxer?—from the meeting.”
I stopped walking and stepped out of the way of some oncoming surfers, boards in hand. The smell of the fudge shop I was standing in front of made me turn around to see the offerings in the window.
“Boxer! How are you?”
“Not very good,” he was speaking softly like he didn’t want to be overheard. “I could really use a meeting.”
I looked at my watch; 11:30. Over my twenty years of sobriety I’d gotten plenty of calls like this. Rarely convenient, often an interruption of something that seemed oh, so important, I recognized them for what they were: cries for help, cries that if left unanswered could lead to a slip or worse. I had an almost Pavlovian response to such calls.
“Meet me at the noon meeting in Blenheim,” I said. “We can have lunch afterward.”
“Okay,” he said meekly.
However fragile his sobriety, at least Boxer seemed to have what we call “willingness.” When you’re on the edge, as he clearly was, if you question, doubt, or hesitate to take the advice of a fellow and more experienced sober person—something I’ve seen happen too many times—you’re already halfway out the door. The only chance for salvation (if that’s not too strong a word) is to ignore your inner demons and follow the voice of experience and reason.
Before walking away from the fudge shop, another Pavlovian response sent me inside where I bought a pound of salted caramel and a pound of chocolate. Always good to bring sugary gifts back to the house for the family.
I wasn’t really in the mood for a meeting, but one must do these things. People had done the same for me twenty years ago, and someone did it for them before that, and all the way back to the beginning of AA. And the truth was, by getting my mind onto his problems, Boxer had helped me get my mind off my problems—even if one of them was his father.
I got to the meeting in time for the opening, but no Boxer. Eventually, halfway through the speaker’s story, he wandered in and took a seat behind me. I nodded over my shoulder, and he made a half-hearted effort to smile.
After the meeting we found a diner a few blocks away from the boardwalk that wasn’t swamped.
“What’s going on?” I asked after the waitress brought us water and menus.
“My fucking father,” he said, running his hands through his hair. He wore a tan sport coat, brown slacks, and a wide tie, loosened at the neck. He didn’t look as heavy in his business wear as he did in his golf wear. “He’s trying to build this condo or McMansion thing, I don’t know, but it’s on these dunes out here—‘Paradise Dunes.’ That what he calls everything he builds, ‘Paradise Lakes,’ ‘Paradise Hills,’ ‘Paradise Valley.’ But this place, I mean, it’s crazy, totally unstable and all that, and he can’t even find a local contractor to do the work cuz nobody even wants to be involved with it. He had to get these guys to come down from Jersey. And now he wants me to be, like, I don’t know, like some kind of partner or sub-contractor or some shit. I don’t know.”
As I may have mentioned, there was a possibility that interacting with young Clement might cause some sort of conflict-of-interest. I just didn’t expect it to happen overnight.
Suddenly his expression changed.
“Shit, I forgot. You’re related to the guy my father hates.”
“Wow,” he looked around as if pondering an escape.
The waitress returned and we ordered.
“Look, Boxer,” I said. “I’m here to support your recovery. I’m not here to get into you and your father’s business. You called and said you needed a meeting. Do you have a sponsor?”
“I had one, but he relapsed.”
“Well, you can always call me. Are you feeling like drinking?”
“No, not really,” he said. “It’s just this work stuff—my dad, really.”
“Yeah, he seems like he could be a difficult person,” I said. I was trying to stay as neutral and supportive as possible. This was a tricky one.
“When I was in rehab they told him that I needed to stay busy when I got out, so I guess he’s just trying to help. It’s just, he takes everything to the extreme.”
That sounded like a description of an alcoholic, but I wasn’t going to start that discussion.
“You know, early sobriety is hard, and we always have to deal with stuff we messed up when we were drinking. Everything changes, our relationships, our work, our feelings, everything. Right now the most important thing is, don’t drink or use no matter what. Sooner than later you’ll have to sort out the rest of it, but if you’re not sober, none of that’s going to matter. It’s got to be your priority.”
I didn’t particularly like to give this speech, but I could see by his nodding that he was listening and taking it in. I’m sure he’d heard it all before—we all have—but sometimes we just need to be reminded, and we need to hear it from someone we trust. For some reason—god knows why—that was me right now, and I knew I had to come through for this kid. I just had to.
“Thanks, Arthur,” he said, sounding sincerely grateful.
Just then his club sandwich, French fries and oreo shake arrived. I had ordered the vegetable soup. Dinners at the Thomas household tended to be big affairs in the summer, and I’d learned to take it a little easy during the day so I’d have room for it all.
“Now what are we going to do about this golf tournament?”
“Oh, god,” Boxer wiped his mouth. “My father is absolutely insane about that. You should hear him.”
“Yeah, well golf is important.” I knew, though, that this changed everything. The trouble was, even if I now had some compassion for the Huey family, Jeremy did not. “We’re still going to have to whip your butts.”
Boxer smiled. “Go ahead. I really don’t care.”
* * *
As I walked to my car afterward, I checked in with the beloved who gave me the all clear to do what I saw fit for the afternoon. The rest of the tribe was occupied with their various occupations, and my presence was only expected for the evening meal.
What I needed after this stressful morning was some quiet golf time, so I headed over to Sandy Hills. I’d matched up the rental car’s Bluetooth with my phone, and I put in a call to Emily on the way. She had nothing to report. Dilworth hadn’t committed to hiring us for the EIR in Hayward, but all other projects were running smoothly. She hadn’t spotted any more odd behavior from Trevor and Brian, but I asked her to keep me updated.
When I pulled into the golf course parking lot I made one more call, to Eddie Hauser at Dilworth.
“How are you, Art?” he asked.
“I’m on vacation, I think.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you anything about the EIR yet if that’s why you’re calling.”
“Not really, but thanks. I figured you’d have to take the project through another round of internal discussions. This raises the stakes quite a bit.”
“Yeah, like another million dollars,“ he said. “But what’s a million give or take to Dilworth Inc.?”
“Wow, Eddie,” I said. “You’re getting a little cynical over there.”
“Comes with the territory,” he said. “So what can I help you with?” he asked.
“I’m just wondering if you’ve heard from anyone on my team?” I said. “Brian or Trevor.”
“Funny you should ask,” he said. “Brian just called this morning. I’m not really sure what he wanted. I mean, he was, what do you say, ‘circumspect’?”
“What did you make of it?”
“I think he’s planning to jump ship and wanted to see if he could get our business away from Bell.”
This was just what I’d been thinking. What else would Brian and Trevor be working on secretly but starting their own firm?
“You got all that from his circumspection?”
“You and I have been around the block, right Art?” he said. “This kid thinks he’s being subtle when he’s talking to me, but come on. I could see right through him.”
“Did you give him any hope?”
“Oh, sure,” said Eddie. “I told him what a prick you were and how I couldn’t wait to stab you in the back—Arty, we may not be best friends, but you’re a professional who has always been straight up with me. We go back a long way.”
“No thanks necessary. It’s just good business. But I’ve got to tell you, a lot of the executives in this company don’t think like that. Loyalty doesn’t mean shit to these guys. It’s all bottom line. If they think they can get some new kids to come in on a project and save some bucks, they’ll drop you like a toxic dump.”
“Good to know. Thanks for that.”
“So that’s really how Dilworth runs?”
“You bet. My V.P. is always looking to cut costs to impress his bosses so he can get his bonus.” At one time I had thought Cameron Collins, Eddie’s boss, would be a good partner in keeping Dilworth’s projects environmentally sensitive. Over time, though, he’d become more of a company man, and now looked to be even more of a Collins man.
After we hung up, I sat in the air-conditioned car for a few minutes contemplating the situation. I’m not a schemer or on a power trip. Yes, I probably could have made more money if I’d been better at playing games, but it wore me out to even think like that. Doing the right thing was hard enough. Even if Trevor and Brian left and took my entire staff along with them, what could I do? Of course they’d signed a non-compete clause when I hired them, but the money for the lawsuit to sue them wouldn’t be worth it, and they would probably be counting on that.
What I knew was that I’m good at my job, and if I had to dissolve my company and go work for someone else, I’d do it. But I guess I also believe enough in karma that I figure anybody who screws someone that badly by ripping off their clients and staff is eventually going to screw themselves. I mean, when you operate like that, you make a lot of enemies, and business is mostly about relationships. If you destroy all those relationships, what do you have left?
Was I just being paranoid? Maybe there was an innocent explanation for Trevor and Brian’s actions. Maybe Emily and Eddie were just overreacting. Maybe Lois Mead’s couple’s therapy had just brought them closer together.
With all those maybes, though, it seemed likely there was a no-way in there somewhere. I couldn’t afford to trust maybe. I had to assume the worst.
At that point in my ruminations, I felt the frustration and powerlessness of being able to do absolutely nothing about any of it right now, and looking out the windshield at the driving range, I realized I was in the perfect place, a place that was all about doing something that meant absolutely nothing.
When I came into the pro shop an older couple was at the counter in front of me. After they’d gotten their tee time I stepped up. By now the staff recognized me as Jeremy’s relative and playing partner.
“What can we do for you, Mr. Bell?” asked the young man behind the counter.
“I wanted to go out now if there’s a spot.”
“Sure,” he said, clicking his keyboard. “You could join the Tappitts. That’s the couple that was just here.”
I had been thinking about playing alone, but decided to team up. One of the pleasures of the game is meeting fellow golfers and playing a friendly round.
I pushed my hand cart to the first tee where I found the Tappitts in their cart waiting for the fairway to clear.
“I guess they paired us up,” I said.
They stepped out of their cart and offered a handshake.
“Don Tappitt,” said the husband.
“Dotty,” said his wife.
His madras shorts matched her madras skirt, and they had matching bodies as well, short and stout. Probably in their mid-sixties, they moved slowly, though their eyes were bright, even twinkly.
“Do you know the course?” I asked.
“Our first time,” said Don.
“We just joined the club,” added Dotty. “You?”
“I’ve played it quite a few times,” I said. “I’ll try to give you some pointers.”
“That would be terrific,” said Dotty.
Don drove first, displaying a unique swing that involved a slow backward movement followed by a quick chop at the ball, as though trying to catch it unawares. Predictably, this produced a duck hook that vanished into the tall grass on the left side of the fairway.
I winced. When playing with inferior golfers—and this is not meant as any kind of disparagement, for I too am inferior to many others—there is always the risk of infection. One sees a poor swing; one makes a poor swing. Many golfers attempt a kind of visualizing process before hitting the ball as a way of priming the mind and body to execute the proper movement, however, when one whose game is much worse than your own in on full display before your very eyes, this sight can have the effect of overriding your own vision with this corrupted vision. And so it was for me.
Though I managed to avoid the extremes of Don’s hook, something akin to a boomerang trying to find its way back home, I did pull my drive into the lighter rough on the same side. We moved up to the ladies’ tee where Dotty’s slow, smooth swing put her hundred-yard drive straight down the fairway.
It was clear that these people wouldn’t be competing for the club championship as Don took two hacks just to get out of the rough, and Dotty inched her way toward the green with gentle iron shots.
Shortly I regained my composure and my own inner vision. In fact, it doesn’t really bother me if my partners are playing poorly, as long as they don’t take excessive time between shots, and the Tappitts were quite efficient at moving up the course, even if it involved an abundance of shots. I was a little tight, having trouble getting out of the rough on one and three-putting two, leading to consecutive bogeys.
Number three is a hundred and sixty-five yard par three with a hundred and fifty-yard lake to carry. I took six iron and put it eight feet from the cup. Now I could feel it. Sometimes it just takes one good shot to get your game going.
I was worried when Don stepped up for his drive, and indeed, his ball wound up skipping twice on the lake before sinking under the water. He and Dotty just laughed, which impressed me. I respect someone who can maintain their composure under difficult conditions. Personally, I would have been swearing and likely pounding my club into the ground, my usual response to a poor shot.
The ladies’ tee box didn’t require such a long carry, and Dotty put her ball on the edge of the green. Unfortunately my birdie putt lipped out. Nonetheless, the par got me going, and I finished the front nine seven over par. It would have been five over, but on the par 5 seventh hole, the blind, uphill third shot got me. Not being used to the heat which tended to make the ball carry, I hit it over the back of the green where it stuck in some gnarly weeds. It took me two shots just to chop it out of there, and then I three putted because I was so frustrated. Here is where the pro separates him or herself from the amateur. Pros don’t let poor shots throw them. In fact, they seem to take pleasure in solving problems like how to hit out of weeds or around trees. Strolling the fairways looking so relaxed one suspects they are hooked up to a Valium IV, these masters of escape behave as though each shot didn’t represent massive amounts of potential income won or lost. While the amateur playing for nothing but pride, often acts as if their very survival were at stake when they fumble a routine chip shot.
When we came to the tenth tee there was a group in front of us searching for a ball in the tall grass. Such moments are a perfect opportunity to learn more about your playing partners, and so I turned to the Tappitts.
“Are you folks from around here?” I asked, casually swinging my driver to stay loose.
They looked at each other and smiled, which seemed to be their habit before answering any question.
“Altoona,” said Don. “
”P-A,” said Dotty.
“He knows that, Dot.”
“Did you know that?” she asked.
“I suppose I did,” I said.
“Don retired a few years ago and sold the hardware store,” said Dotty. “The kids didn’t want any part of it.”
“Moved to Pittsburg,” said Don.
“So, we got an RV and just toured around for a while,” said Dotty.
She looked at Don, who continued, “We settled in Arizona for a while.”
“But that was too hot,” said Dotty.
“And dry,” said Don.
“Then Florida,” said Dotty.
“Too wet,” said Don.
“And hot,” said Dotty.
This was beginning to remind me of one of Martha’s tennis matches.
“Then we read about Paradise Dunes,” said Don.
I stopped waving my driver and looked at them. For a moment I think I stopped breathing.
“You know the new condos north of Blenheim Beach?” said Dotty.
I started nodding, then realized I hadn’t said anything. “Yeah, I heard about them,” I said.
“Well, they’re just…,” Dotty looked at Don.
“Paradise?” said Don, and they both cracked up.
“We just put a down payment on a two-bedroom beauty,” said Dotty.
“Great,” I said, practically choking on the word.
Rarely does one receive disturbing information on the golf course. Maybe you get a text requesting you pick up the young beloved from school or an email regarding some small business matter. This news from the Tappitts, however, fell more in the category of lightning striking your driver in the backswing. I looked at my playing partners who had previously seemed like innocent hacks and saw horns growing out of their heads. All my suspended judgment, on their pudgy bodies and clumsy backswings, came roaring back as I began to think they embodied everything I hate. Clearly they were evil.
The group in front had finally found their ball and gotten to the green, so, in a kind of vengeful fog, I stepped up to hit my drive. I believe I’ve mentioned the old mind/body connection and how when the mind is agitated the body often behaves erratically. In fact I may not have even been looking at the ball when I swung. The results were predictable, a hooked shot into the same weeds as the previous group. And, frankly, I didn’t care. Rarely does something on the links take my mind so far away from golf as hearing that my partners were buying into Paradise Dunes.
I hardly paid attention to the Tappitts’ drives until I found Don searching for his ball alongside me in the tall, dry grass.
“You playing a Titleist?” he asked, holding up a ball.
Now he’d committed another sin, touching someone else’s ball. I restrained my disgust and took it from him, tossing it randomly out on the fairway. Normally I adhere to the rules when taking a drop, measuring two club lengths from the hazard, but now my discipline had vanished along with my swing.
The succeeding two or three holes remain something of a blur in my memory, but somewhere around fourteen or fifteen I began to snap out of it. I reminded myself that I was playing golf and mustn’t lose sight of my priorities. Yes, the brother-in-law’s problems, not to mention coastal environmental concerns were important in their way, but one must never shirk one’s duties on the links. Such loosening of standards merely reinforces the steady slide of modern civilization.
With this sort of positive self-talk, I seemed to regain my balance. This in spite of a steady chatter from the Tappitts about the beauties and wonders of Paradise Dunes.
On the eighteenth tee, I turned to Don.
“I heard there might be some erosion problems out there,” I said. “With the sea level rising, those places might not be very secure.” I thought that introducing a note of scientific concern might allow for a reasoned discussion.
He looked at Dotty and they both smiled and nodded.
“You said you were from California?” he said.
I admitted that I was.
“So you’re one of those ‘Climate Changers’?” he and Dotty almost doubled over in laughter. He turned to her. “Oh, yeah, everybody better get one of those electric cars or we’re all gonna drown.”
Dotty must have noticed my grim demeanor.
“Don, I think you offended Arthur.”
“Hey,” he said, still smiling. “No offense, there, Art, huh?”
“Oh, no,” I lied. “None taken.”
My drive found the pond that runs the length of the right side of the eighteenth hole. A few minutes later I tore up my scorecard and walked to my car.
My mind awhirl, I stared out the windshield for several minutes. Wasn’t I doing the same thing before my round. Between the Hueys and Bell E.D. my golf game was a mess. Not to mention my family vacation.
How was I going to handle this close encounter with a Huey customer? I realized that sharing this information with Jeremy had not practical value.
Before driving home I called the beloved to check in.
“Do we need anything for dinner?” I asked. “I can stop at the store on the way home.” I figured I would get some big points by volunteering to shop.
“You forgot we’re going out to dinner?”
Of course I had.
“No, I just thought maybe we needed something for breakfast.”
“Then why did you say ‘dinner’?”
“Did I say dinner?”
“Art, just admit you forgot.”
“There is one thing you could bring home.”
My daughter is no doubt charming, intelligent, and responsible. Nonetheless, she is a seventeen year old girl and thus prone to rudeness, idiocy, and irresponsibility, not to mention selfishness. It turned out all of these had been on display this afternoon as she first ignored her cousin Lexie in favor of the tanned one, and then refused to depart the beach at the appointed hour, leaving Lexie to walk home by herself. Martha wanted me to go down to Blenheim Beach and pick her up, assuming I could find her.
The beach was clearing out when I got there, and I found a parking space near the boardwalk. I was operating under the assumption that the preferred lifeguard was the one she’d been visiting when I saw her earlier in the day. I hadn’t downloaded the app Martha used to track her phone yet, but I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find her with the beach almost empty.
Presumably the same people I’d seen earlier in the day when meeting Bill Mathis, the beachgoers who arrived full of energy and spunk, were the same as the bedraggled, sun-burned families I now saw limping off the boardwalk dragging bruised boogie boards, sandy towels, and empty coolers. I was the only person going toward the sand this late in the day. Walking past the founder’s statue, I could see that the tide was going out, a line of seaweed separating the smooth, wet sand from the dry area covered with footprints. Surprisingly, the beachgoers had been reasonably responsible, leaving little garbage for the Blenheim Beach waste management crews to clean up.
The lifeguard immediately in front of me flashed flag semaphore to his colleague to the north. A cool breeze coming off the land had him dressed in a red hoodie. It was inspiring to watch someone execute the ancient maritime signals, but in this day of electronic communication it seemed not a little anachronistic for these fellows and ladies to be flagging up and down the beach.
“Hey!” the young beloved appeared behind me, her bikini covered by an extra-large Blenheim Beach t-shirt that went to mid-thigh. “Just in time.”
“How did you know I was coming?” I asked.
“I got a text from Mama.” She was carrying a large, hot drink in one hand and her phone in the other. We walked past the new Euro bathroom. “How about that thing?”
“Good upgrade from the old ones,” I said.
“Yeah, the lifeguards said that creepy guy gave it to the city.”
“That guy who want to wreck the dunes.”
“Really?” I said. “Huey?”
“That’s what they said.”
First Emory’s Beemer and now the new bathroom. How was I going to prove these were bribes?
“Let’s go,” I said, and she followed me off the boardwalk toward the car. In my golf outfit, I felt a little out of place alongside the swimsuits and barefeet.
“What are you drinking?”
I pushed the unlock button, the car beeped, and the locks chunked open.
“Can I drive?” asked Natalie.
“You’ve got to be twenty-five,” I said, and opened the driver’s side door.
“Ridiculous rule,” she said.
“I don’t understand the allure of chai,” I said as I climbed in the driver’s seat and snapped on my safety belt. “Isn’t coffee or maybe an Earl Grey tea a sufficient source of hot caffeine? Why does throwing in a few Indian spices and milk make it so special?”
“Are you going to start complaining about how rap music is just noise next?”
She had me there. Finger wagging about the activities of “kids these days” is a sure sign of my encroaching irrelevancy. But still, four twenty-five?
She reached for the radio as the car came on, but I quickly turned it down.
“Why did you abandon Lexie?” I asked her.
“She wanted to go home.” The innocent look I knew so well.
“She was really upset that you left her,” I said. “You’re mother’s not at all happy.”’
“She left me!” she pleaded. “I just wanted to hang out some more and she couldn’t wait.”
“You need to be nicer to your younger cousin,” I said. “It was late and she wanted to go home, so you should have gone with her.”
“I’m sorry,” one of her completely insincere apologies.
With all the families leaving the beach, I had to edge out of the parking space, and then I was in a long line of cars waiting for the light to change.
“Where’d you get the t-shirt?”
“You’re full of questions,” she said, sipping her chai.
“Yes I am,” I said. “If you had walked home, you wouldn’t have to be subjected to them.”
“Larry the Lifeguard.”
“That’s his name,” she said. “It’s not his fault it’s alliterative.”
Always good to hear the young beloved using literary terms. Perhaps public education wasn’t deteriorating as much as its detractors claimed.
“What about Jordan?” I asked, figuring I should get straight to the matter. I knew the beloved would have warned me away from such a frontal attack, but I felt my own approach was more honest.
“What about him?”
“I thought he was your boyfriend.”
“I’m not doing anything,” she said. “Larry’s a nice guy. He’s got the day off tomorrow. We’re going to play mini-golf.”
“You do remember you’re going up to see Georgetown tomorrow, right?” Of course, I only remembered because the beloved had reminded me.
“What?!” exclaimed Natalie. “Since when?”
“Walker has to get back to town, so your mother figured this would be a perfect time to get him to take you on a tour.”
“I can’t,” she cried. “I told Larry…”
“Well, untell him,” I said.
Arms folded, she retreated into a funk.
When we got back to the house, she jumped out of the car and ran in. By the time I got upstairs, she’d already exploded at Martha and charged up to the third floor.
“What did you do?” asked Martha when I came into our bedroom.
“I just told her about tomorrow.”
“You should have let me handle that.”
“How were you going to handle it better?”
Her raised eyebrows implied that no matter how she’d handled it, she would have done it better than I.
I half-heartedly held out the fudge I’d bought in Blenheim Beach.
“Want some fudge?”
“Get that away from me,” she said. “I gain enough weight on vacation.”
“Okay,” I said and took a sample of the salted caramel.
The Tappitt issue had, by now, receded as a topic for discussion.
* * *
One of the Thomas/Bell family yearly traditions is a visit to Cappy’s Crab House for a meal. Situated on the bay side of the peninsula where Blenheim Beach resides, Cappy’s is one of those ramshackle old places with a sand parking lot and an old dinghy planted with begonias out front. Somehow it reminds me of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” which is about the era Cappy’s first opened. It was retro before retro.
You have to duck your head to get in the front door, after which you’re greeted by one of “Cappy’s Girls” who all wear Cappy’s Crab House t-thirts a size too small in the blue and gold of Cappy’s alma mater, the University of Delaware. The walls feature signed photos of Blue Hens sports stars, some in action, some shaking hands with Cappy. Most prominent, of course, is Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl winning quarterback, standing with Cappy. In the picture, Cappy, with his arm around Flacco, looks as if he’s about to sprain his face, he’s smiling so wide. According to Joe’s inscription, Cappy’s are the best crab cakes in the state of Delaware.
The entire Thomas/Bell clan was in agreement with Joe on that point. With perfect weather, we sat on the back porch, a screened in area overlooking the bay.
It took two vehicles to transport the entire cohort, so I’d followed Jeremy in our rental. With Nat angry with us, and Lexie angry with Nat, they switched parents for the ride, though Lexie wasn’t much more communicative than our own daughter would have been.
Seated at a long picnic table, we started in on the legendary complementary hush puppies. Fortunately the rest of the family didn’t seem to be aware of Nat’s mood as she sat stoically at the opposite end of the table as her parents.
“Hello, Mr. Thomas,” it was Cappy himself delivering our menus. “You brought the whole gang, I see.”
“Good to see you, Cappy,” said Jeremy. “What’s the special?”
This was their old joke. You didn’t come to Cappy’s for anything but crab cakes.
“Well, let me see,” said Cappy. “We had a chateaubriand with a side of deep-fried cauliflower drizzled with raspberry vinaigrette, but we’re out of that. I’d recommend the crab cakes.”
“Okay, crab cakes all around!”
After the drinks were ordered, Jeremy leaned toward me.
“Have you seen the weather report?” he asked.
“Rain tomorrow and Wednesday morning,” he said. “The course is going to be saturated for our first round.”
“Great,” I said.
“I practice in the rain all winter,” I said. “I’ve got a whole strategy for playing in the rain.”
“Good,” he said. “Because I hate it.”
“You know, Dad,” chimed in Walker. “The current models we saw in our environmental science class last semester show this part of Delaware underwater by 2065.”
“Good,” said Jeremy. “I’ll be dead.”
Jeremy seemed to be in a strange mood. I hoped it was just the excitement of the moment.
I looked down the table to see if Gerald was going to comment, since I assumed he went along with the Tappitts as a climate change denier. Fortunately at his age it was tough to hear in a noisy restaurant, even outside. In any case, he was chatting with Natalie who, despite her irritation at us, would always put on a good face for her grandfather.
“So, what?” said Lexie. “I get to inherit a swamp?”
“Who said you were going to inherit anything?” said Jeremy.
This family banter kept us entertained until the crab cakes arrived. Then quiet ensued for about two minutes, just grunts and groans of pleasure up and down the table.
“I had an interesting discussion with a guy from DelMarVa Ecodesign this morning,” I announced, wiping my hands on my napkin.
“’Ecodesign’? What’s that?” asked Walker.
“It’s just a fancy name for an environmental engineering firm,” I said. “He brought this birder who says there have been Jersey Plover sightings on the beach near your house. At least there was one a couple years ago.” I looked over at Jeremy. “They’re on the endangered list, so if we could find a nest out there, that might be enough to stop Huey.”
“Really?” said Lexie. “That would be great, Dad!”
“Yeah, but how do you find them?” said Jeremy.
“You look for them,” I said, stating the obvious. “I think we should organize a family search.”
“Sounds like fun,” said Connie.
“Sorry, I can’t make it,” Natalie piped up from the end of the table. “I have to go look at Georgetown tomorrow.”
So she was listening.
“That’s right,” said Connie. “Are you excited?” Apparently she hadn’t gotten the memo.
“Not really,” said Natalie.
Connie gave Martha and me a “What’s that about?” look and we just shrugged. No point in going into it here.
“Thanks for doing this, Walker,” said Martha. “It’s great to get a tour from a family member.”
“No problem,” he said. “It’ll be fun. Plus we won’t have to go plover hunting.”
“What is a plover?” Connie asked me.
“No idea,” I said. “I mean it’s some kind of sea bird. I was going to read about it on Wikipedia later.”
“I thought you were an environmentalist,” she said. “Don’t you know about wild life?”
“A common misunderstanding,” I fell into my academic voice, such as it was. “Environmental engineers are more involved in managing the interface between humans and nature, you know, water pollution, air pollution, recycling, waste management, all that. I don’t actually know anything about birds. Or animals in general.”
“Sounds boring,” said Lexie.
“Lexie, don’t be rude!” said her mother.
“I admit it’s not very romantic,” I said. “But we’re trying to, you know, save the human race, so we think it’s important.”
“Don’t be a jerk, Art,” Martha chimed in. “Lexie’s perfectly entitled to her opinion.”
“Well, I for one find science fascinating,” this coming from Gerald who apparently could hear what I’d been saying. “I was just reading a biography of Newton. Turns out the whole apple falling on the head story was apocryphal.”
This brought the conversation to a halt.
“What’s apocryphal?” asked Lexie.
“It means it was made up, “ said Connie.
And who had thought it was not apocryphal, was my thought, left unspoken.
“Originally,” said Martha, “it referred to parts of the Bible that were considered inauthentic. But over time it’s come to mean any spurious story.”
“Like Washington and the cherry tree,” I said.
“Or Neil Armstrong landing on the moon,” said Gerald.
Some of us looked gape mouthed at the elder, while others, like Jeremy and Connie, suddenly found their napkins to be a worthy area of study.
“I’m kidding, folks!” said Gerald. “Gosh, you take a conservative stand around here and everyone thinks you’re getting senile.”
The sighs of relief around the table were almost audible.
“Well, you can get kind of fringy, Grandpa,” said Natalie.
“This coming from the Berkeley contingent?” he said.
“It’s not all ‘Berzerkeley’ anymore, Dad,” said Martha. “These days Berkeley’s a pretty mainstream city. For California.”
“Thanks for the qualifier,” he said.
“Okay,” said Connie, always the one to try to keep family discourse harmonious. “Now that we’ve established that, who wants dessert?”
“Frozen custard!” came a chorus from the young beloveds. Pat Emory’s little corner shop in downtown Blenheim Beach was another traditional stop for the family. I met Jeremy’s eyes for a moment, an unspoken acknowledgment that one of our innocent joys had been spoiled.
“My treat,” said Gerald. “Since I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Despite the fairly calm exchange before, I was relieved that he would be departing at the same time Martha and Nat left on their trip to Georgetown tomorrow. While he was a smart and interesting guy, given our divergent views on many subjects, in his presence I often felt a need to restrain myself, which created an ongoing tension. Not the mind state most conducive to vacationing.
The visit to Custard Heaven turned out to be relatively uneventful, but neither Jeremy nor I had an appetite for Emory’s products. While the others pushed up to the counter to put in their orders, he and I stood by the back wall and watched Emory and his teenage helpers dishing out the creamy treats. Tall and lean with a shaved head, he didn’t look as if he made his living selling fatty desserts. Either he didn’t over indulge in his own wares or he had one of those metabolisms that allowed him to eat all he wanted. Outside, the BMW was nowhere to be seen.
When we got back to the house later, Jeremy asked me into his office. Despite the fact he’d spent a couple days in here working, the pile of manuscripts hadn’t seemed to shrink. In fact, if anything, it looked taller to me. Jeremy didn’t bother offering me anything to drink, just poured himself a scotch.
“I think it’s time to face facts, Art,” he said. “We’ve got nothing. Huey beat us. He’s even got the Planning Commission in his pocket. How am I supposed to fight that?”
I thought about the Tappitts and their down payment. Huey was already making money on Paradise Dunes. And I hadn’t even told Jeremy about the new Euro toilet in Blenheim Beach or Mathis’s comment that Huey had someone on the governor’s staff.
“What about the Jersey Plover lead?” I said. “That could be a game changer.”
“Oh, come on, Arthur,” he said, knocking back the scotch and getting up to pour another. I didn’t realize before that he kept a bottle in here. “’Jersey Plover’ my ass. You don’t actually think you’re going to find such a bird?”
He must have had a few glasses of wine at Cappy’s because now he was edging towards drunk. I’d never known Jeremy to be so negative and cynical—arrogant and entitled, maybe, but not cynical.
“I don’t know. It’s worth a shot.” I said it, but I had to admit that I’d been losing hope myself. I still just found it so hard to believe anyone could think about developing these dunes. There had to be a way to stop it.
“Maybe,” he said. “But I’m thinking of selling out.”
“What do you mean ‘selling out’?” I asked. “Selling the house? You can’t possibly–”
“I don’t want to be here when those monstrosities go up.”
I was stunned. I realized that, to some degree, I’d been dealing with this like just another one of my Bell Inc. projects. With my company, the only thing on the line was money—which wasn’t insignificant, but it didn’t have the emotional impact of your home being under siege. That’s how Jeremy felt, I now knew.
“Jeremy, no,” I said. “Have you talked to Connie about this?”
“She’ll have to deal with it.”
Now I knew he was drunk. He’d never treat her like that.
“Look, why don’t you take a day, play some golf, kick back.”
“Golf. That’s your answer for everything.”
“Shit, Jeremy.” This wasn’t him. He might poke fun at me, but I’d never known him to insult anyone personally. I thought I might have been able to get him to lighten up, but clearly that wasn’t going to be possible. “I’m not suggesting golf as a cure all—I’m not even really talking about golf. I’m trying to…”
But he wasn’t listening. He had that faraway drunken look as if he’d already forgotten what he just said. He was lost, and the only way to come back was to sober up. It had never occurred to me that Jeremy was an alcoholic, but his behavior was making me wonder. I felt bad because I hadn’t seen this coming. I should have realized how disturbing this all was for him.
Suddenly he looked straight at me. “Fucking assholes,” he said, and he stood up and went for the bottle again.
“Yeah, they are,” I said as I stood up myself. “Or he is.” I’d separated Huey in my mind from Boxer.
He took another slug and turned around.
“Good night,” he said, apparently dismissing me.
“I’ll talk to you in the morning,” I said and walked out.
I’d been dying to tell Martha about the Tappitts, but when I went up to our bedroom she was already asleep. I got into my pajamas and quietly slipped into bed beside her. I lay there for a long time staring into the dark. I loved Jeremy and his family, and it was awful seeing him go through this. Somehow I felt responsible. I was the environmental engineer, after all; I should be able to fix this. But how?
Dark and stormy mornings are the best time for sleeping in, and having only been vaguely disturbed by the beloved’s cool lips on my forehead as she slipped away at dawn for the college tour, this I planned to do. With the entire bed to my self and the comforting sound of rain falling outside, one would think that nothing could have disturbed me. One would have been wrong.
Rarely, if ever, has the name of a bird caused me insomnia, but on this morning that was the case. “Plover.” What sort of word is that? Somewhere in Cole Porter’s lyrics, there must be a plover—how could he resist? Think of the possible rhymes—or don’t.
In rising, I discovered Connie and coffee in the kitchen. It was early in the morning, so naturally none of us looked our best, but I detected something extra weighing on her.
“Morning,” she said less brightly than usual. “Coffee?”
These conversations are best left monosyllabic until the caffeine takes effect. Soon, however, the words flowed.
“Martha got off okay?” she asked.
“Far as I know.”
“So what are you going to do with your freedom today?”
“Go plover hunting.”
“Want some company?”
“Absolutely. The more the merrier. Or at least the more ground we can cover. ‘Cover.’ That doesn’t rhyme with plover, does it?”
“No, Arthur, it doesn’t,” she said. “I’ll get Lexie to join us. She won’t have anything else to do with Nat gone and the rain coming down.”
Left unspoken was Jeremy’s condition, not to mention his statements from last night. I assumed he hadn’t told Connie that he was actually thinking of selling the house. In fact, I assumed his drunken self hadn’t told his sober self he was thinking of selling. Surely those were just the angry rants of a man in his cups.
By the time Connie and Lexie and I headed out in our search, he still wasn’t up. Armed with pictures printed from the Web and descriptions of plover habitat and calls, we walked toward the dunes. The rain was steady, though light, so we wore shorts and slickers and carried smart phones to catch pictures of any birds.
Down past the “Paradise Dunes” sign we waded into a sort of sand valley behind the biggest dunes that marked the end (or beginning) of the beach. Here the beach grass was thicker, so you didn’t want to walk barefoot because its sharp edges cut right into the skin. As we stepped through this area my hopes grew, because it fit perfectly the description of the plover nesting habitat from Wikipedia: protected from the ocean, sandy and grassy, with occasional batches of driftwood.
“It says that their ‘vocalization’ is a ‘soft, whistled peep, peep’,” I told them.
“That’s a big help,” said Lexie.
She had a point. What bird didn’t “peep”?
“Well, when they’re alarmed they go ‘pee-werp’,” I said. “Is that more useful?”
“Okay, check out these pictures I printed out,” I said. “It says they have ‘yellow-orange’ legs and black bands across the head and neck. Otherwise they kind of blend in, just sandy colored.”
“That could be hard to see out here,” said Connie. “Especially with the rain.”
“Lemme see,” said Lexie, crowding in to look. “I think I’ve seen one of them before.”
I froze. Could I trust a fifteen-year-old girl’s memory of seeing a particular little bird?
“I don’t know, like a couple weeks ago. Dad and I were throwing a football, and he chucked it over my head. I had to climb to the top of the dunes, and I looked down and there was this little guy. I don’t know. Are there a lot of other birds that look like that?”
“I don’t know.” And I should have known. I was tempted to call Fran Cutler, but I dreaded talking to that insufferable birder again.
At this point, if we could find anything that looked anything like the damn plover, I’d take it.
According to the pictures I’d found, the nests were even more vague, just kind of indentations in the sand with some pebbles and maybe a couple sticks. The eggs looked like speckled gray stones. This could be like trying to find a golf ball in a field of white daisies.
We figured that we could spread about twenty feet apart and see everything on the ground. We started to criss-cross the dunes examining every potential clump of grass, mound of sand, or piece of driftwood for signs of nesting. We could walk at a fairly normal speed, though it was tough going in wet sand. Still this wasn’t quite a needle-in-haystack situation, since nothing was really concealed here.
It was grueling work, slogging through the wet sand with your head down, being pelted by rain. Grueling and tedious, and pretty soon your eyes went out of focus and you forgot what you were doing. I’d snap out of it, realizing I’d been thinking about golf or Nat’s school search, and I’d wonder if I’d actually seen anything for the last fifty yards. Looking over at Connie and Lexie I hoped they were doing a better job of paying attention than I.
Just for good measure, I’d brought pictures of some of the other shorebirds, and these seemed to appear in mass quantities, presumably to just emphasize our failure to find a plover nest. Seagulls by the score, dozens of sparrows, and even a pair of egrets and a heron standing on a sand bar came into view. I hadn’t realized how extensive the Huey development site was, stretching on for a half mile northward and five hundred yards east to west.
After two hours, we were getting exhausted, physically and mentally, and we’d only covered a quarter of the land. A couple of raised wooden walkways cut through the property, shortcuts from the road to the beach that visitors used. We took one back to the road so we could go home for a coffee break. Afterward, we came back the same way and started right where we left off.
Another hour in, Lexie called out.
“Here. What’s this?”
Heart jumping in my chest, I ran to see.
It did have the look of a nest, clumps of grass stuck together by a thick piece of driftwood. But there were no eggs. It was hard to tell.
“What do you think?” Connie asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.” I took a picture of it and forwarded it to Mathis, asking him to show it to Fran Cutler. As the email message went out I looked up in the air wishing that a damn Jersey Plover would just land in front of me and end this torment.
By lunchtime we were probably two thirds of the way through the property. The rain was falling harder now.
Just then Connie’s phone hiccupped.
“That’s my text alert,” she said, looking at her phone. “It’s Jeremy. He’s going out to play golf.”
“Good,” I said. At least he was taking my advice on that count. Perhaps a good night’s sleep had brought him back to his senses. Golf might not be the cure for everything, but most things, certainly.
“Kind of wet for that, isn’t it?” asked Connie.
“The true golfer is not deterred by mere showers,” I said. “Although the club will close the course if a lightning storm comes up.”
“Good to know they draw the line at actually risking your life,” she said.
“Well, there’s probably a liability issue,” I said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t care.”
Back at the house Lexie went on her laptop, and Connie got ready to make some sandwiches.
“Why don’t I?” I said as she brought bread and cold cuts out of the refrigerator. “You do everything around here.”
“It’s all yours,” she said, and sat down on one of the stools and looked at her phone.
“Did you talk to Jeremy last night?” I asked.
“I was asleep when he got to bed.”
“He had a few.”
“And he said some things.”
She looked up as I spread mustard.
I realized I was about to break a confidence—a drunken one at that—so I decided to fudge.
“I knew he was upset—I mean we all are,” I said as I laid ham and cheese on the bread. “It’s a terrible prospect having this development. But I didn’t realize how hard he was taking it.” That left her the opening if she knew about his plan to sell the house.
“I know,” she said. “I love this place—I mean, who wouldn’t?—but I didn’t grow up here, so it’s probably a little easier for me to envision some change, or even letting it go. Like I told you on the beach, we’re all going to have to move inland sooner or later, right? You heard what Walker said last night about the sea level.”
“Yes, I’ve seen those studies, and he might even be underestimating the time frame. In any case, with these super-storms starting to hit, this whole part of the DelMarVa peninsula is on borrowed time. It could all get wiped out in the next Sandy.”
“On that happy note, give me one of those sandwiches.”
I got out three plates, laid a sandwich on each and handed her one. After taking one to Lexie on the couch, I took the stool next to Connie and started eating.
It’s funny how someone could be a significant part of my life like Connie, but I’d never spent time alone with her, and honestly, I don’t think I knew her very well. I’d see her a making a meal or cleaning the kitchen, while the walls and tables held her striking photos.
“Do you ever think about doing another book?” I asked, pointing towards her picture of a Tibetan child on the wall. “Why did you quit?”
She sighed and dried her hands on her apron.
“It’s one of those things,” she said. “I loved it when I did it, but now it doesn’t feel the same. For one thing, after doing it professionally, I don’t really want to take snapshots—I mean, taking pictures with a phone just doesn’t cut it. But the life, out trekking and dealing with all the inconveniences and hassles and toting around a ton of equipment, it just doesn’t appeal anymore.”
“Well, you did great work.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I don’t know. When Lexie goes to college I might get into photo editing for Decomar or maybe teaching a class or two.”
I couldn’t ask the Thomas women to spend the afternoon in the same way they had the morning, so I went out myself with earbuds and a rock playlist on shuffle. This land had the look and feel of the original Scottish links courses—the dunes “the link” between ocean and mainland—and my mind began designing holes over dunes and through gullies. The rain was letting up when the music was interrupted by my phone ringing. With no ID on the caller, I was hesitant to answer. But the area code was from the Bay Area, so I accepted the call.
“Well, the axe fell sooner than I thought,” said a familiar voice.
“I’d watch your back, Art,” said Eddie Hauser. “Evil forces are at work.”
“What happened, Eddie?”
“The Dilworth Inc. V.P. of Hospitality Development found my services no longer needed,” he said.
“Collins fired you?!
“”Yup,” the merry tone in his voice belied his situation. “You’ll be happy to know I’m calling you from Monarch Bay. Having a great round, as a matter of fact.”
“Yeah? You’re hitting it well?”
“Did I say that?” he chuckled. “There are other ways to define a ‘great round.’”
“Such as the availability of the ‘cart girl’ and the cold beer she’s delivering to the course. Cute, too.”
“All this just because they’ll need a more extensive environmental report for the Hayward project?” I said. “How is that your fault?”
“V.P.’s need scapegoats. It’s in the job description. Right under ‘Must wear thousand dollar suits and ugly ties.”
“So what other ‘evil forces’ are at work?”
“Mutt and Jeff are lurking in the halls of Dilworth,” he said.
“Trevor and Brian?”
“The very ones.”
So they really were trying to pull something. With no plovers in sight, I turned to watch the gray ocean breaking on the shore.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“After I break 80?” A distant dream for Eddie. “Look for a job.”
“Well, Bell ED may have an opening soon. Maybe two.”
After he hung up I called Emily, first on her office line, then on her mobile. She didn’t answer either. Here I stood on top of a sand dune in the rain looking for some bird while my company might be falling apart three-thousand miles away. I was beginning to think I was on the wrong side of the country.
Despite the needs of my distant company, I found myself consumed with the issues before me in Blenheim Beach. While the day’s sojourn over the dunes of paradise was incomplete, after Hauser’s call my motivation to tread to the limits of Hueyland flagged, and I returned to the Thomas homestead.
After lunch Connie and Lexie had gone out to shop at the outlets, so the place was all mine. I decided that my next area of exploration should be in a virtual land, the State of Delaware website. There I found my plover listed under endangered species. Since, as has already been mentioned, my own work usually involved non-livings things like water, waste, air pollution, etcetera, my encounters with endangered species tended to be limited. I suppose this was somewhat intentional. I found the disastrous state of human-animal relations as described in cheery bureaucratese by such publications as the Delaware Wildlife Action Plan (or DEWAP) terribly depressing. “Delaware is home to more than 800 species of wildlife!” it declares. I find the exclamation point particularly galling. As though the state had something to do with the existence of these animals. And when you look at the list of endangered species—so called “Species of Greatest Conservation Need,” meaning these guys are about to die off—and see how many of the 800 are threatened, the exclamation point seems particularly egregious. I was reminded that we are in the midst of what some call “The Sixth Extinction.” The first five were not caused by human activity, but resulted from vast global disruptions to the ecosystem ranging from ice ages to meteor impacts.
For most of human history we’ve felt dwarfed by the earth and its oceans, mountain ranges, deserts, and forests; and we’ve felt vulnerable to its capricious winds and rain, its icy winters and sun baked summers. We couldn’t imagine that we could do harm to such a vast planet. Now, of course, we know differently. As the climate spins out of control, the oceans swirls with gyres of plastic, and great cities like Beijing and New Delhi choke on their own emissions; as earthquakes erupt in Oklahoma from fracking and bee colony collapse threatens California fruits and vegetables; as super bugs defeat all antibiotic cures and finding potable water becomes the prime concern of billions, the end game begins to look more and more bleak. Is it really possible that through our own greed and ignorance the human race could commit accidental suicide? The very conjecture causes me to fall into despair.
This was a dangerous line of thought, even for an optimist—and I’m not sure I qualify on that count. Clearly I was in need of some uplift, and where better to find that than the Golf Channel? Unfortunately, it being early in the week, no tournament was on, which meant I’d be subjected to the dreaded lessons. Here one was told how to correct all one’s swing flaws and how to chip more smoothly and putt more accurately. However, the effect of watching such shows was invariably a disruption to one’s game. Of course all of our swings are flawed, chips chunky, and putts off line, but the average golfer learns to work within these limitations, like steering a misaligned car. As long as you keep pointing left, you’ll correct the pull to the right.
But, if while watching one of these “improve your game” shows, one falls into the delusion that actual improvement is possible, all that happens is that in your effort to achieve the perfect Tiger-like swing, you lose what you already had, which was perfectly adequate, and wind up with a gerrymandered, tree-chopping mess and swerve off the metaphorical road. No, it is always better to stay with the flaws you have than to create new, unfamiliar ones. Sadly, in my vulnerable emotional state, my mind fell into the trap. Soon I was standing in front of the TV trying to mimic the “inside-out swing plane” the “PGA Teaching Professional” was demonstrating. Fortunately, before I did any serious damage to my swing, I heard the door close downstairs and Jeremy’s voice calling out for Connie.
“There’s just me,” I said as he came into the living room.
“Hey, how’s it going?” he said. “Getting some tips?”
His cheery tone was as concerning as last night’s pessimism. When he went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of craft beer—something that had not been invented before I began my abstinence–my concern was not abated.
“How was your practice?” I asked.
“Great,” he said. He pointed at me. “We’re gonna sweep this thing. I’ve got a feeling.”
“Good,” I said. “I hope so.”
“I know so,” said Jeremy. “Hey, guess who I saw on the course?”
My raised eyebrows seemed enough of a response.
“Boxer,” he said. “He was playing alone. I met him at the turn. He was surprisingly friendly. Maybe he’s not the prick his father is.”
“Yeah, I think he’s okay,” I said. What else could I say?
I wondered if Boxer could help us with this problem. Could he talk his father out of this flawed development plan? And could I even ask him to? I knew he wasn’t really a fan of Paradise Dunes, but he didn’t seem to have much influence with his father, and besides, the only reason I knew how he felt was that he had revealed it when confiding in me about his struggle to get sober. I couldn’t very well use that information in this situation.
And speaking of AA, Jeremy looked like the next candidate, when he downed his beer and got out another before Connie and Lexie got home.
With Walker and Gerald gone and the beloveds not back yet, dinner was a slight affair of leftovers. Nonetheless, Jeremy opened a bottle of red, gave Connie a glass, and went through the rest himself before the dishes were cleared. His perky, non-stop conversation had the troubling manic quality of someone running from his own feelings, a quality I knew so well.
As we were cleaning up, Martha and Natalie got home, and though exhausted from driving and the campus tour, brought news of a gratifying day. Natalie’s mood had swung back to her normal positivity and she had nothing but good things to say about the Jesuit university. The painful (for me) possibility that she would go to school so far away from us was somewhat assuaged by the fact that she would be near the Thomas family.
With a quiet night ahead, the six of us sat down and tried to find a movie we could watch. With hundreds of films to choose from, it still took almost half an hour to find something that a) no one had seen before and b) everybody was interested in. By the time the opening credits had run, Jeremy had “fallen asleep” with his mouth open on the couch.
I knew well the data on alcoholism as a genetic disease and had watched my daughter closely in this regard. The same risks applied to Jeremy given his father’s history. Being sober myself, I’m probably a little over sensitive to how people use alcohol, so when we went to bed, I asked Martha what she thought.
“You don’t think he was just tired?” she asked when I brought up how he’d passed out before the movie even started.
“Maybe,” I said. “But I could tell he was drinking on the course, and then he polished off most of a bottle of wine at dinner. And last night it was scotch.”
“Well, he’s under a lot of stress,” she said.
“I know, but drinking yourself into a stupor isn’t a healthy way to handle that.”
“We can’t all be as even keeled as you,” she said.
“Touche,” I said. “I guess it’s not really my business.”
“Now you’re on the right track,” she said. “Look, once this Huey thing gets straightened out, if he’s still drinking like that, maybe have a talk with him.”
That was a talk I had a hard time imagining. Even though I’d had it with many people over the years, Jeremy wasn’t many people. I couldn’t imagine him taking kindly to his brother-in-law telling him to go to AA.
I’ve often noted the odd experience of finally arriving at a long-anticipated event. Here, something which had played out in your mind so many times before was being lived out in the flesh at last. Never like you imagined, the real thing contained the physicality that the mind couldn’t replicate. On this early morning, that physicality included creaky bones and tight muscles, a throbbing head and fluttering stomach. And I didn’t even have a hangover.
I quietly slipped out of bed and dressed in my golf gear. Though I eschewed logoed items, I nonetheless found the wicking effect of modern fibers in golf polo shirts to be conducive to comfortable rounds. And while the PGA professionals aren’t allowed to wear shorts, I was grateful that such regulations were not enforced at steamy Sandy Hills, though of course, jeans or cargo shorts were prohibited.
“Ready to go?” said Jeremy much too perkily as he came into the kitchen to sample Connie’s eggs and bacon. “Looks good, hon,” he said and kissed his wife.
“Always ready for golf,” I said.
He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “This is gonna be good.” I assumed me meant the tournament, but the way he tucked into his breakfast, maybe he meant the eggs.
Either he really didn’t have a hangover or he was good at faking it. Then, just before we left, I saw him slipping a pill bottle into his pocket. Perhaps that explained his quick recovery from last night’s indulgence.
Connie stood at the door and waved as we drove away.
* * *
Although golf is often demeaned as a sport for its lack of physical challenge, the thirty-six hole day that faced us at the Sandy Hills Golf Club Summer Tournament would be a challenge even for athletes of some fitness, which we were not. With no electric golf carts allowed, all contestants would be on foot, most using push trolleys, while a few hardy souls toted bags over their shoulders. Fortunately, the rain had stopped earlier than predicted, and the sun was coming through. As we teed off in our first match at 7:06, mist still rose from the course, and the surrounding pine forests rustled in the morning breeze. As our drives disappeared into the haze, the sense of magic that suffuses the best moments in golf gripped me. Indeed, this was going to be fun.
In our first match we were paired against two longtime members who, though efficient ball-strikers, simply didn’t have the power to match Jeremy and me. The wet conditions were causing them trouble, while Jeremy and I were making clean strikes on our balls, a must on a damp course. Within a few holes it was apparent who would win, and the two of them showed their character, one starting to curse after every shot, the other seeming to take joy in simply playing a round of golf on a beautiful summer morning. The ninth hole brought us back to the clubhouse, and the four of us sought some quick refreshment. When Jeremy came out of the bar with a sixteen-ouncer, I looked at my watch. Nine-fifteen and already drinking. But I held my tongue as suggested by the beloved.
Fortunately the beer didn’t affect his game, and our lead continued to grow on the back nine. For us it was essentially a warmup round, while for our opponents it was a disappointing one-and-done for the tournament.
Over lunch we discussed our next foes, a pair of D.C. lawyers who were known for their precise short games.
“We need to watch these guys,” said Jeremy. “Right when you think you’ve got them, they’re likely to hole out from a bunker.” The Bloody Mary didn’t seem to faze him, but when he stood up, I saw his hand go in his pocket and jiggle the pill bottle. He excused himself to go to the bathroom.
While he was away I sent a text to Emily. She hadn’t returned my call from the day before, and I was getting worried. It wasn’t like her not to get back to me quickly. The terrible thought that she’d gone over to Trevor and Brian’s side flashed through my mind. No, she wouldn’t. Would she? What other reason could there be for her not calling?
I needed to get these desperate thoughts out of my mind and focus on the vital work of golf.
Our next opponents were warming up on the putting green. They looked about our age but had spent more time in the gym. Immediately I didn’t like them. Handsome, tall, in shape, all the things I wasn’t. I assumed they’d be arrogant (lawyers!), unscrupulous (Washington lawyers!), and narcissistic (rich Washington lawyers!). Their friendly smiles and warm handshakes were clearly a cover for their arrogant, unscrupulous narcissism.
The starter called us over, and the lawyers won the toss and drove first. I’d seen their handicaps, 13 and 15, but these were not 13 or 15 handicap drives, long, high draws putting them past the first fairway bunkers and in perfect position for their approach shots.
As Jeremy got up on the tee, I found myself checking my phone to see if Emily had texted me back. This wasn’t a good mindset to start the round. I heard Jeremy’s ball being struck and looked up. I lost it in the sun.
I stepped up to hit my first drive, and with my body jacked up from anxiety, I pulled it into the long, thick rough on the left side of the fairway. It took me and Jeremy almost the full allotted five minutes to find my ball, and even then, I had no shot. I just punched out onto the fairway and was still away—in other words, before anyone else had hit their second shot, I was hitting my third. Even that didn’t reach the green. Great start.
After one hole, we were already losing by two strokes. With a couple more poor holes, we were down four after three. Only Jeremy’s unusually steady play was keeping us in the match.
One thing was clear. As I’d suspected, these lawyers had inflated handicaps. This was a trick some unscrupulous players (lawyers!) would use, only recording their poor rounds so that their handicap would be unnaturally high when they came to a tournament. That would give them an unfair advantage after the handicap was subtracted from their gross score. Since this was a handicapped tournament, they had obviously planned accordingly. I myself take too much pride in my almost single-digit handicap to pull such shenanigans.
Finally on the sixth hole, I settled down and started to play. A short, downhill par three, I’m always reminded of the iconic seventh hole at Pebble Beach when I reach this tee box. While not framed by the majestic Pacific, the hole nonetheless has that deceptively difficult quality. The shot is almost too, short, and it’s confusing as you stand there trying to figure out what club to use and how to strike it. And confusion is the worst possible mind state for a golfer. There are many different ways to approach the shot. Just pick one and do it. But if confused, you lose confidence and just as you’re about to strike the ball, fear assails you and you shank, yank, block or otherwise distort the ball flight, leading to any number of catastrophic situations. This time, though, I confidently took out my pitching wedge and stuck my drive eighteen inches from the hole for birdie, while the lawyers dropped a shot apiece, one ending up in the rear bunker and the other going far left.
On the seventh, where my blind third shot had gone over the green in practice, I judged the distance much better, landing just left of the hole. My second birdie in a row put us one back, and there we stayed.
On the back nine I could tell Jeremy was fading, whether from the pills wearing off (by now I was pretty sure they were stimulants) or the drinks—two more beers at the turn—I couldn’t be sure. But I could tell he was pushing to make it and close out this match. While his drives were starting to go way right, his tendency when he was having trouble, he was surviving with good chipping and steady short putts. I had no idea how he did it. Personally, I would have fallen apart with that many substances in my body, but some people have more tolerance than I.
We came to eighteen still one shot down. If we lost this match, there was still a chance we’d make the final against the Hueys, but it would depend on the lawyers losing tomorrow morning. Eighteen is a three-hundred-sixty-five yard par four with the pond I entered in practice running along the right side between the first and eighteenth fairways. The fairway bends right at the end so that with the pin placed in the right rear corner as it was today your approach shot has to go across the water. An intimidating final challenge.
Jeremy’s drive sliced as usual and looked like it was headed for the water. Fortunately it got caught in the tall rough, although it gave him a tough sidehill lie out of deep grass. I wound up on the left side of the fairway, while the lawyers both out drove us—fifteen handicap my ass—and split the fairway.
I followed Jeremy to his ball to assess his situation. He was just two yards away from the water, but had a clean lie.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think you should play safe,” I said. “Don’t risk the water. You never know what kind of contact you’ll make out of that lie. Just get it close to the green. Your chipping’s been stellar.” Always best to give some positive thoughts to the golfer prior to a difficult shot.
I was glad he was taking my advice because now wasn’t the time for heroics. I had a good chance at birdie and that would at least keep us in the tournament.
Jeremy got his ball out of the rough and landed it near the front of the green. Perfect.
I went to my ball and knew that I needed to get something close. The GPS said it was a hundred and forty five yards to the center of the green, so I added five yards to that estimate. For me that meant seven iron. I had to strike it perfectly. Anything short would go in the water, or at best, the bunker on that side. I looked over at the lawyers who had that “We’ve got this” look on their faces, and I struck a perfect shot, landing it behind the flag and spinning back to five feet.
Now they knew that if neither of them birdied and I got that putt in, we’d tie. I knew they weren’t the kind of guys to play for a tie. The first one took eight iron and got his ball on the front of the green. Not a likely birdie putt. Now they were on the spot. If they played safe, they could still go into the finals if the numbers worked. Tie-breaker was margin of victory, so if we tied this match and we both won tomorrow, it would depend on how much we’d won our two winning matches by.
The other lawyer stood behind his ball lining up his shot. Then he stepped up and hit a wicked slice that landed twenty yards into the pond. He threw his club in after it as his partner stomped away swearing at him. All over but the shouting—actually, they were already shouting.
We wound up with an easy two-stroke victory. Of course, in golf the winners are supposed to buy drinks, but after their disappointing loss, the lawyers were in no mood. After peremptory handshakes, they walked away still arguing about who had lost the match for them. I was ready to head home, but Jeremy insisted on one more visit to the nineteenth hole.
“They thought they had us when my drive went into the rough,” he said.
“That was a great approach shot. That’s really the one that put the pressure on them.”
“If I’d been on my own I would have shot at the pin,” he said. “Thanks for warning me off that.”
“If I hadn’t been in such a perfect spot, you might have needed to go for the pin.”
“They’ll be arguing that case the whole way home,” he laughed and drained a scotch.
On the way out, we checked the board that showed the scores of all the matches today. As expected the Hueys had beaten both their opponents. The final confrontation was getting closer.
When we got to his SUV I was surprised Jeremy went for the driver’s side.
“Uh, ‘designated driver’?” I said.
“I’m fine,” he said, opening the door.
I went around to his side. “I’m not,” I said. “You’ve been drinking all day. And what were those pills you were popping?”
“Shit,” he said. “Are you gonna give me some of your AA crap now? I’m fine. I’ve been pacing myself. Besides, after thirty-six holes I think I walked off all the booze.”
“No way, Jeremy,” I said. “I’m not getting in the car with you like that.”
“Fine,” he said. “Walk home,” and he got in and closed the door.
I stood beside the door looking at him as he started up the hybrid. For a moment he sat there staring out the windshield, then he opened the door and got out.
“Asshole,” he said as he walked around to get in the passenger side.
That evening Bill Mathis called to say Fran Cutler had looked at the picture I’d sent and said it wasn’t a Jersey Plover nest. With just days to go before construction began according to the Paradise Dunes sign, I made a decision. I guess it was playing with the lawyers today that made me think of it.
“Bill, can you give me the name of an environmental lawyer in the area?” I asked.
“Sure, but I thought you said your brother-in-law hated lawsuits.”
“What he doesn’t know and all that,” I said.
He gave me the number, and even though it was late, I called figuring I’d leave a voicemail. I was surprised to hear a live voice.
“Oh, hi, Paula—Ms. Webb,” I said. “My name is Arthur Bell.” I went on to tell her the situation, which it turned out she’d heard about through the grapevine—the appropriate place to hear about environmental issues.
“So,” she said. “What have you got in mind?”
“An injunction,” I said. “Some kind of stop work order that can just slow things down. I know we’re not going to be able to permanently shut down the project without a more substantial reason, but I figure you can pull something out of your hat to at least give us some breathing room.”
“Okay,” she said, and there was a pause. “I’ll need to see whatever documentation you have.”
“Of course,” I said. “There’s another thing I wanted to ask you about.”
“Jeremy—my brother-in-law—thinks the Hueys might have bribed someone on the Planning Commission, Pat Emory. Is that something you would know how to investigate?”
“Not me,” she said. “But I have someone.”
“Great,” I said. “And you know that new toilet down on the boardwalk?”
“That ‘Star Trek’ thing?”
“”Yeah,” I said. “I think Huey ‘donated’ it.”
“Busy guy,” she said.
“And you need this when?”
“I’m really backed up…”
“I’m sure, but all you need is to make a case for a temporary halt. That shouldn’t take much. The bribery thing is more of a backup.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll look over what you have, and if I see an opening, I’ll file tomorrow.”
In California we have a lot of environmentally sensitive judges. Getting an order like the one I was asking Webb to get would be a snap. I assumed the same would be true here in Delaware.
In AA we have a silly saying about things you “assume,” which I won’t share due to its vulgar nature, but I will simply say that it tells us that we are often made to look foolish when we take things for granted. As usual, the wisdom of AA proved correct.
For the happily married, vacations often provide the setting to reignite the old romantic spark, as they say, and I’d certainly hoped the beloved and I would enjoy that sort of warmth at the beach. However, so far, if anything, the temperature had mostly declined. My preoccupation with Jeremy’s Paradise Dunes issue had clearly put a damper on things.
With Jeremy and my third and final match before (hopefully) facing the Hueys, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, I suggested to the beloved that we take a walk on the beach in the morning as our busy schedule had allowed for little couple time and the weather had markedly improved since yesterday.
Avoiding the Huey property, we headed over the dunes down to the shoreline where we walked barefoot and caught the tips of the incoming waves. This would have been a romantic scene under other circumstances.
“I don’t even know why we came,” said Martha. “It’s not like a vacation at all with this Paradise Dunes hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles.”
The old mythological reference. Just what you’d expect from the English prof.
“You knew all about that before we came,” I said. I didn’t remind her of her words of appreciation just a couple nights before.
“Yeah, but I didn’t think it would cast such a pall over everything.”
“I’m trying to sort it out.”
“Well, try harder,” she said.
“I called a lawyer last night,” I said. “She should be able to get us a temporary reprieve.”
“I thought Jeremy didn’t want to sue.”
“I didn’t tell him.”
“So what happens after the temporary reprieve expires?”
“Let me just take things one day at a time, okay?”
“You know I hate those AA cliches.”
“Sorry, but it applies.”
“It just sounds like you’re postponing the inevitable.”
“More wisdom for the ages?”
“Come on. I’m trying everything I can think of.”
“Well, try harder.”
“You said that.”
Such conversations tend to drain the pleasure of even the most beautiful setting, and now, heads down, we were simply plodding along, barely noticing the picture perfect day.
In an attempt to revive some semblance of enjoyment from the walk I attempted a change of subject.
“So, Georgetown was nice?” I said.
“Beautiful,” she said. “It made me wish I could be teaching somewhere that academics were really valued.”
Uh, oh. Perhaps I’d chosen the wrong topic. Too late. She continued.
“I’m so tired of the trivial administrative games people play at Clarke. And they’re so anxious to increase applications that everything becomes about marketing and branding. Actual teaching is barely ever mentioned.”
Having heard such laments more than once in the past, I knew any attempts to paint a rosy picture or suggest alternatives would be met with a solid wall of well-formed arguments. My only options were silently allowing her complaints to follow their course until they ran out of steam, or another topic shift. I tried the latter.
“Nat said she really liked it, huh?”
“I don’t think it’s really right for her,” said Martha.
I didn’t seem to be able to find a topic that would brighten our morning. At some point one must simply admit defeat.
“Maybe we should turn around,” I said. We were getting within smelling distance of the frying food on the Blenheim Beach boardwalk. And so we did.
Coming back up through the dunes toward the house, an ominous rumble arose, and behind the trees we could see massive vehicles moving slowly up Jeremy and Connie’s road. Martha and I stopped to look. Earth movers, bulldozers, dump trucks and more turned off into an open area bordering the dunes. A man in a sport coat and hardhat directed traffic.
“I thought they weren’t starting work until Monday,” said Martha.
I crossed over the dunes toward the man in charge.
“Hey!” I called out. He couldn’t hear me over the roar of the diesel engines. “Hey!” I yelled louder and finally he turned.
“You’re not allowed on this property,” he said. “This is a construction zone.”
“Not yet, it’s not,” I pointed to the sign that said construction would start on July 1. “You’re not supposed to be starting until Monday.”
“You live around here?” he asked.
“You the guy from up the road?” he pointed at Jeremy’s house.
“I’m related,” I said.
He nodded. It was all clear to him. I was one of the troublemakers. He went back to directing traffic.
“So what are you doing here today?” I said.
“We gotta get ready, buddy,” he said without turning around. “We’re starting first thing Monday, and we’re getting everything in place. That all right with you?”
I noted the name on the side of one of the trucks: “Scarpetti Construction, Trenton, NJ.”
I shook my head and walked away. Up ahead I could see that Martha was already climbing the steps to the house. What’s the saying, “Another perfect day in paradise”?
* * *
I figured a warning to Jeremy was wiser than letting him be surprised, so before we left I told him what I’d seen. Either way, the result was painful.
“Motherfuckers,” he said as he came around the corner and saw the vehicles. As he slowed down I was afraid he was about to swerve into one of the workers, but he just stared.
The rest of the ride to Sandy Hills was no more gratifying than the morning’s walk with Martha. Jeremy put on an opera and drove the narrow roads faster than I would have liked. We warmed up on the driving range and went to the first tee where we discovered that our opponents for the day were two older gentlemen who really didn’t belong in the club championship.
While my own game was off today, Jeremy seemed to thrive on his anger. He wasn’t drinking, and whether he was hungover or not, he was crushing his drives and managing to keep them on or near the fairway. The poor old club members never had a chance. We were walking off the eighteenth green after shaking hands when my phone vibrated in my pocket.
It was Paula Webb.
I stepped away from Jeremy to talk.
“No luck,” he said. “Judge Calista would have none of it.”
“Not even a temporary halt?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I wanted to give it my best chance, so I made an appointment to see him face to face. I know Calista, so I wasn’t shocked. He’s not really sympathetic to environmental issues. Or, to put it bluntly, he’s in the pocket of the developers.”
“This is a state court?”
“What about the circuit court?”
“I think you’d be pushing it, Arthur. You’re not giving me anything. I looked at the environmental review and couldn’t find a legitimate legal argument to make. I had to go on something more vague—concerns of local citizens. That’s not going to fly in federal court. Won’t even get me in the door. It’s basically a NIMBY defense.”
I thanked her and asked her if she had any other ideas to please contact me.
“We’re on a deadline here,” I said. “If I can come up with something—something tangible—I may need you at a moment’s notice.”
She gave me her private number in case I needed to reach her off hours.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” she said. “My investigator looked at the Planning Commission minutes over the last few months, and it looks like this Emory fellow did kind of make a sudden switch after opposing Huey’s project the first few times it came up for a vote.”
“Okay, good,” I said. “Can he find out about the BMW? Or get a look at Emory’s bank records.”
“I doubt it,” said Webb. “Not without a court order. The Commission minutes are public records, but the bank stuff is private.”
“Right, of course.”
When I hung up, I lost the last piece of polite reserve I’d been using to talk to Webb.
“Shit!” I grabbed my golf bag from behind the green. “Shit, shit, shit!”
Jeremy was already halfway to the clubhouse, but he turned around.
I just shook my head.
I wasn’t going to tell him what I’d been up to and start another argument, but I didn’t have a convenient lie prepared.
“You gonna get a drink?” I asked.
“Not today,” said Jeremy steering toward his car.
As we put our bags in the back of the SUV, he looked at me.
“What is it?” he said. “You’re obviously upset.”
I looked back at him then over at the driving range.
“What the hell,” I said. “I guess there’s no pointing not telling you now.”
“That was a lawyer I’ve been talking to. I wanted her to get an injunction to stop the work.”
Jeremy nodded. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”
“I thought you’d be pissed.”
“No, Art,” he said. “You’re doing everything you can, I know that. I mean, you’re out there tramping through the dunes in the rain when I’m sleeping off a hangover. How can I complain about anything you’re doing?”
“Well, anyway it didn’t work. The judge refused to do anything.”
“Yeah, well, you tried. I appreciate that. And everything you’ve been doing.”
“It’s a relief to hear you say that,” I said. “I was afraid I was going to have to take you to an AA meeting.”
He laughed. “Maybe I need it,” he said. “I just haven’t known what to do, so that’s where I go.”
“I hear that,” I said.
“Yeah, but I guess I’m just going to have to accept things as they are and move on.”
“Sounds like you already went to a meeting.”
I was grateful that Jeremy sounded like his more or less normal self. Things were tough enough without him pouting and drinking.
“She’s where?!” I said when Martha told me Natalie was having dinner with the lifeguard.
“We ran into him on the beach,” she said. “He seems like a nice boy.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “They all seem nice. That’s their specialty, these creeps.”
“Arthur, what on earth are you upset about?”
“I just got used to the kid in Berkeley,” I said. “Justin.”
“Right. Jordan,” I said. “Anyway, he plays golf, he’s polite, and I know where he lives if I need to have him beaten up.”
“Fine,” I said. “When’s she coming home?”
“I told her midnight.”
“Midnight? We’ll be asleep.”
“She’s seventeen,” she said. “She can stay out till midnight.”
“I’ll stay up,” she said.”
“Good, because I need to rest for the big match tomorrow.”
Dinner continued the dreary tone of the day. The arrival of the construction vehicles had brought home the finality of the situation, and even Lexie seemed depressed. In describing the situation, golf metaphors desert me. This was more like war, and we were the city about to be laid to siege.
Afterward we tried watching a movie, but no one was very interested and before long everyone retired to their bedrooms. I picked up a murder mystery from the shelf and got in bed to read.
As I was drifting off my phone started to vibrate. Normally I would have let it go to voicemail, but things being as they were, not tonight. I saw the ID. Emily calling from Berkeley.
“Finally,” I said.
“Arthur, I’m so sorry,” she said. “My boyfriend surprised me with a birthday trip to Napa, and I forgot my phone charger.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“What have you heard?”
“Not much, but I don’t need to hear it. I can see it. Brian and Trevor think they’re being subtle by taking people out to lunch one at a time. It’s pretty clear what they’re doing.”
“Yeah, I figured,” I said. “Eddie Hauser got fired.”
“Brian and Trevor may be trying to go over his head. If they could land the Dilworth contract, they’d be able to start their own firm.”
“But why do they want to do that? Bell is a good company—you’re a good boss. What are they going to gain?”
“It’s called ambition, Emily.”
“Yes, but you don’t have the kind of ego those guys do. As long as they were enemies they created a counter balance for each other, they could compete against each other, but together they can’t tolerate working beneath someone else.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Have Caroline set up a meeting for Wednesday with John Cornelius.”
“The Dilworth president?” she said. Cornelius was, in fact, the president of the Dilworth Hotel Group, which is a subsidiary of the Dilworth Development Corporation, Inc.
“Hauser’s boss will be happy to screw us, so we have to go over his head if we’re going to keep that contract.”
“Will he even take a meeting with you?”
“You bet,” I said. “Half this business is about relationships, Emily. Cornelius’s wife is a Clark College alum. And guess what his favorite hobby is?”
“Starts with ‘g’ and ends with ‘f?”
“We team up for the annual athletic department fundraiser every spring; his handicap is fourteen, but if he had more time to play he could get it under ten.”
“So that’s how you got the contract?”
“No, that just got me a chance to make a pitch for the contract. We got the job fair and square. They can’t afford to hire environmental engineering firms based on a golf handicap. Though it might not be a bad idea.”
“Are you really that worried about Dilworth?”
“You mean, am I worried about losing the contract? Not really. We’ve got plenty of work. I just can’t stand those twerps stealing from me.”
“So this is about your ego.”
When we hung up I went back to my mystery. The next thing I knew I heard Martha’s voice.
“Art, wake up,” she said.
I rolled toward her and squinted at her with my right eye. The novel was still open on my chest.
“Nat’s not home yet, and it’s one o’clock.”
“You said she was old enough to stay out.”
“She’s not answering her phone,” she said. “And look,” she held up her phone where a tiny dot was moving across the screen.
“Why are you playing video games?” I said.
“It’s not a game,” she said. “It’s my phone tracking app. She’s down in the dunes.”
That got my attention.
“What time is it?” I asked sitting up, wide awake now.
“I told you,” she said. “It’s one.”
“Give me that,” I said, and grabbed her phone.
I got out of bed, pulled on some pants and found my flip flops. My own phone was charging on the bedside table. I unplugged it and started to go.
“Don’t be mean,” said Martha. “And don’t embarrass her.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Don’t start World War III. She’s just out an hour past her curfew. Just find her and bring her home. Don’t make a big thing about it.”
“Okay!” I said. “I heard you.”
* * *
It was still warm outside, the crickets chirping, a breeze going through the pines. Soon I was out of range of the floodlights outside the house and headed into the dunes. I turned on the flashlight app on my phone while I kept an eye on the dot marking Natalie’s location on Martha’s phone. It wasn’t moving anymore. Past the Paradise Dunes sign and down into the Huey’s property behind the beach the muffled sound of waves gave a Doppler effect.
To my left the hulking construction vehicles lurked like frozen metal ghosts. With no moon, the darkness was almost total. The flashlight app, rather than casting a soft circle of light, shot forth a continuous camera flash, like a spotlight, bright and piercing. The adrenalin from being jolted awake subsided now, and my fatigue returned. Suddenly I craved something salty to eat. What the hell was I doing out here in the middle of the night?
There was no reason for people to be walking in these dunes, so the only footprints I came upon were apparently those of myself, Connie, and Lexie from our search two days previous. These criss-crossed the path at regular intervals as I pursued my daughter.
With my eye on Nat’s dot, I stepped into a hole in the sand and nearly fell over, twisting my ankle. Swearing and limping, I plodded on, getting more and more irritated with every step.
A thick chunk of driftwood nearly tripped me, but I saw it just in time and skipped over, landing hard on my sore ankle. I stopped for a moment to look around. I was still on Huey property, and judging from Nat’s location on Martha’s phone, she was near the far end, past where my search had been interrupted.
It’s rare for me to be out in the dunes at one o’clock in the morning—I suppose it is for most people—and I had the feeling I should be enjoying the quiet, the warm night air, and the sound of the lapping waves, but I wasn’t in the mood to enjoy anything but a nice, warm bed.
As I got closer to Natalie, the dunes began a slow rise. Climbing for ten, twenty, thirty paces, my feet slipping in the soft sand, I huffed to the top of the dune. From that perch I scanned my flashlight across the landscape below. Just a few hundred yards from the inlet that led to the bay, this must be near the end of Hueyland. To my right I spotted something un-sandlike sticking out from between two smaller dunes. Just then the sand beneath me gave out and I slipped down the steep dune.
A sound escaped me that is hard to spell. Something along the lines of “Ah!” or “Aargh!” or perhaps “Uhnn!” In any case, it expressed my shock and I suppose a kind of fear, though I wasn’t actually afraid of sliding on sand. The body—and lungs—simply spout these sounds involuntarily.
In order for you to imagine the next moment, we must slow things down. At the end of this description, you can run the scene back at normal speed in your mind to get the feeling of it all happening in real time.
First there were the faces of Larry the Lifeguard and Natalie the Daughter appearing from behind the aforementioned smaller dunes. They made their own involuntary noises which may have also included specific words, but those my memory refuses to retrieve. Let us just imagine.
Their faces were followed instantaneously by their chests, which were not clothed. This, for a father was a shock for which I was unprepared, and I will forgo any further description of their anatomies. The fact is that in the brief moment of their bodies appearing, I and my flashlight beam recoiled, not wishing to see or expose anything further. It was then that I saw it. And heard it.
First, what I heard. “Pee werp.” I only say that I heard “Pee werp” now in retrospect, because at the time, it simply sounded like a scared bird. But, having reviewed Wikipedia’s plover page, I see that “Pee werp” is the sound associated with plovers in a state of agitation. So, “Pee werp” it shall be.
What I saw, then, was the plover—or plovers—as there were two, along with the eggs—three of them. Did I know right then what I was seeing? Hard to say. My mind had not been on plovers since I’d been awoken, or even as I’d made my way through the dunes. Yes, I’d recalled looking for them and I’d regretted not finding them, but my mind hadn’t been on them in the sense of looking for them now or, certainly of having any expectation of finding them.
I imagine that, had their been no eggs, the little fellows would have run off, but instincts being what they are, they stayed. Though Wikipedia hadn’t helped me on the question of male and female appearance, it was clear that the one that stayed sitting was the female, while the male rose and took, what I can only surmise, was an aggressive plover posture.
One always wants to be seen as quick thinking in an emergency—the person who flings the door open on the downed airplane, the one who begins administering CPR to the elderly heart attack victim, the hero who jumps up and performs the Heimlich maneuver on the choking steak eater—or in this case, the person who starts snapping pictures of the endangered Jersey Plover. I am not that person.
First of all, after seeing the birds, my phone slipped from my hand. Secondly, my daughter had now found language and was hollering bloody murder at me. Thirdly, although I’ve described all this clearly from memory, at the time I couldn’t seem to make sense of it. I can only blame my interrupted sleep for creating a dreamlike effect on my mind at the time—not to mention my daughter’s braying. My befuddled mind tried to determine a course of action: grab my daughter by the hair and drag her home? Slug Larry the Lifeguard, and then grab my daughter by the hair and drag her home? Apologize to my daughter and her sandmate for interrupting their tryst? Or just sink down into the warm sand and go back to sleep?
I believe it was the other phone–the one now showing Natalie’s dot on top of mine—that awakened me to the wisest course of action: a photograph of the birds. Unfortunately, the phone, which belonged to my wife, did not operate in the same manner as my own. I clicked, tapped, swept, and otherwise attempted to motivate it into a picture taking frame of mind, but to no avail. The next moment, this became irrelevant as this phone, too, went flying out of my hand as Natalie struck my arm.
“Bastard,” she said.
I looked up to see her climbing the dune behind me. Larry the L had disappeared, possibly into the sea. Hopefully he would guard his own life, however, at the time, that was no concern of mine.
My own phone, the one that had been providing illumination, had apparently landed in such a way that either the flashlight app had turned off, or it was buried in the sand, effectively concealing the light.
At least the plovers had not abandoned me in the dark.
If I haven’t made it clear, ever since sliding down the dune, I had been in a seated posture, and now I managed to get myself on my knees and began to sweep the sand around me in search of my own phone, the one whose camera I knew how to operate.
If you have never tried sand sweeping in the dark, I cannot recommend it. The feeling is one of absolute futility, sand being one of those infinite sorts of things, and darkness having the same quality. The combination, then, was something like infinity squared. Which direction had the phone fallen? How deep? How far? None of these variables was given to me, and so I was solving for X without the rest of the equation. This formula looks something like this:
Or perhaps X2=
Although algebra was not my best subject, I was pretty sure these were unsolvable equations.
Just as a reminder, the previous thousand words or so depict events which took bare seconds to transpire. And in fact, though my moment of panic over my lost phone and the algebraic equation that loss had initiated was simply a subset of those bare seconds, the fear I felt created the perception of elongated time. It seemed to go on forever. If I couldn’t find my phone; if I couldn’t photograph the plovers; if they disappeared overnight; if, if, if.
Then it was over. The phone was in my hand.
Again, while in looking back I can see that this entire event was a fortunate one, my distress and anger over my daughter’s behavior erased any possibility of my viewing it so at the time. What I did think was fortunate at the time was that my phone, though coated in wet sand which needed to be brushed away, responded willingly to my prompt. I stood, aimed, and shot.
I took a step closer and shot again. While clearly annoyed—or pee werped in Plover—the birds remained as before, though glaring at the harsh flashing machine in their faces.
The birds, the eggs, the nest, it was all their and I was capturing it. I’d done it. I’d found the Jersey Plover.
I was in no hurry now, so I sat back down in the sand and checked the pictures. Clear as day in the glare of camera flash, these two could have posed for their own Wikipedia page, or perhaps the Jersey Plover Swimsuit Edition. Maybe there’ll be a new reality show: “Real Plovers of the Jersey Shore.” The Platonic ideal of a Jersey Plover with the yellow-orange legs, the black band across the forehead from eye to eye, and the black ring around the neck. Later I would discover the reason the two looked so similar: unlike a lot of other birds, the plover sexes are barely distinguishable.
I stood up and switched on my flashlight app. Without blinding them again I cast enough light to see the happy couple who had just saved these dunes from the onslaught of Paradise. Then I searched the ground until I found Martha’s phone as well. Natalie’s blinking dot was moving farther away.
“Peep peep,” I said as I left the plover family in peace and trod back up the dunes toward home.
As I came to the end of the Huey property, I saw again the sign, “Paradise Dunes,” and impulsively grabbed the wooden stake that held it in the ground. With a few pushes and pulls, the sign came out of the soft, sandy ground, and I slung it under my arm as I walked up toward the house.
This brought back memories of a teenage prank, and I chuckled recalling my father straining to suppress his own laughter when he saw the “17 Mile Drive” sign I’d put up on the wall of my bedroom. My mother, not so forgiving, had insisted I march down to the kiosk at the entrance to the route and turn in my pilfered booty to the authorities. This sort of honesty and humiliation being beyond the capacity of my twelve-year-old self, I lied and told her I would, then threw it in the woods down the road.
I entered the Thomas abode in a state of nostalgia and rapture, amused by the past and joyful at the soon to be resolved issue of the Huey’s development. Therefore, I was taken aback at the sight of my wife in her mismatched pajamas standing in the living room, lights ablaze.
“What did you do?” she asked. Her tone was not curious but accusatory.
“Nothing,” I replied. While this was patently untrue, the denial impulse is powerful when faced with the beloved’s anger. Among the things I had done, I was unclear of which had violated her code.
“What do you mean nothing?”
“What?” Best to clarify my crimes.
“Natalie came back in tears.”
Aha, now things were coming clear. I began to emerge from my fugue state, or whatever it’s called when you hear a soundtrack of oboes and French horns uplifting your spirits. In that moment the orchestra went silent.
“She was messing around with that lifeguard,” I said. In truth, after the miracle of finding the Jersey Plover, I hadn’t had another thought of the young beloved or her dune mate.
“She said you humiliated her.”
“All I did was shine a flashlight on her. For one second.”
“She called you a pervert.”
“What the…?! I’m not the one who was half-naked in the dunes.”
“Yeah, and technically underage.”
“You’re going to have to apologize and try to make this up to her.”
“But you’re the one who sent me out there.”
“You weren’t supposed to traumatize her.”
“Traumatize her? I’m the one who was traumatized. I saw my daughter half-naked with a half-naked lifeguard. My god.”
“You know she’s sexually active.”
“I may know it, but I don’t want to see it.”
“I’m going to bed,” she said and began to turn away. She stopped and pointed at the sign. “What are you doing with that?”
I looked at the Paradise Dunes sign.
“Nothing,” I said.
It occurred to me then in my fugue-less state that I might have acted too hastily with my sign heist. What if something went wrong? I decided right then that it was best not to tell Jeremy about the plovers until the issue had been right and truly resolved. A saying came to mind, “Many bumps on the way to something or other,” or something of the sort. In any case, the gist clearly was a warning not to get ahead of oneself.
And so, like my long ago 17 Mile Drive sign, I took the Paradise Dunes sign and flung it into the pine woods behind the house. Upon returning, I was disappointed to find the beloved already asleep. The fugue was returning, playing a bright tune, and I hungered to share the good plover news.
Was there any point in sending the photos to Bill Mathis and Paula Webb right now? I checked the time. Only 2:12 a.m. Hard to believe only an hour had elapsed since Martha woke me up.
I decided that they should see the photos as soon as possible, so I emailed and texted the photos to both of them so whatever device they opened first in the morning, the images would await them. Then I lay back and fretted about what could go wrong.
As I reviewed what I knew I realized I was depending largely on the testimony of Fran Cutler, the eccentric birder, for my belief that the discovery of Jersey Plovers in the Huey dunes would automatically derail the project. This might easily be one of the aforementioned bumps. Would the State of Delaware or whatever other agency oversaw such questions actually be moved to halt Paradise Dunes over the existence of two birds and three eggs? This question only reinforced my decision to hold back general dissemination of the plover discovery until an answer was forthcoming.
About an hour later, still wide awake and staring into the darkness, it occurred to me that I didn’t have proof of where the pictures had been taken. I quietly slipped out of bed and opened my laptop. With a quick Google search I determined that part of the metadata for the photos would be the GPS coordinates where they had been taken. One worry resolved. I got back into bed and tried to think of other pitfalls.
The morning came rather sooner than my sleep needs would have preferred. Nonetheless, the day promised to be stimulating enough to keep me alert. The first thing I did, even before fully exiting the bed, was check my phone for messages from Mathis or Webb. Nothing.
Restraining myself from sharing my previous night’s discovery with the beloved, not to mention those even more directly concerned ran against my open and voluble nature. Add to this twenty years of AA meetings where people reveal their deepest-darkest, and self-revelation had become a kind of governing principle. Nonetheless, I realized that this had been a good decision. You just never know, and there’s nothing worse than thinking you’ve won and then finding out you’ve lost. No, the plovers seemed to seal the deal, but I’d believe it when the hammer came down on Huey.
Speaking of whom, today was the day, “G-Day” shall we say? The finals of the Sandy Hills Golf Club Summer Tournament, featuring Clement Huey Sr., Clement Huey Jr., Jeremy Thomas, and Arthur Bell.
Jeremy was quiet as well, reflecting, I hoped, a grim determination to put this match in the bag, so to speak. Either that or he’d been tippling after I went to bed and had a hangover. The young beloved, not surprisingly, did not make an appearance for the early shift, while the beloved wives departed quickly for a tennis foursome or whatever it’s called when each side of the court is populated with two people.
In the midst of bagels and cream cheese my phone buzzed. Jeremy looked up from his computer and I saw that Bill Mathis had sent a text.
Looks good. I’ll get on it.
Excellent news, which is how I responded.
“Just business,” I said to Jeremy.
Dying to tell him I’d found the plovers, but terrified that my plan would fail, I found nothing else to talk about. When one’s mind is filled with something one has vowed not to speak, it is folly to chase other topics. They simply are unavailable, like a golf course without a tee time. You can’t crowd more people on. It simply can’t be done. In this case, then, one remained quiet, no matter how awkward that might feel. If one is fortunate, one’s partner will carry the conversation. On this morning, I was not fortunate. It was possible Jeremy had a secret as well, but I feared it was simply his anxiety and frustration. With the Paradise Dunes disaster overshadowing all else, the importance of the golf tournament, which had previously seemed so great, had shrunken to the size of a mini-golf course.
Just before we climbed into the SUV, my phone rang.
“This is Paula,” the lawyer. Now we were getting somewhere.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t want to make any promises,” she said. “But this looks very good. It just depends how quickly we can make it happen.”
Jeremy was in the car now looking at me. I held up a finger and turned around just to make sure he couldn’t hear anything.
“I’m actually going to be playing golf against the Hueys today,” I said.
“My brother-in-law’s club championship.”
“The one who lives by the development?”
“The potential development,” I said. “Yes, that’s the one. So, keep me updated. Just text me.”
“Will do,” she said.
“And call Bill Mathis,” I said. “He’ll be able to help.”
“Already talked to him.”
So, things were in motion. Nothing to do now but wait. Good thing I had golf to keep me busy.
As we drove, the radio softly playing Mozart or somebody, I reflected that it had been just a few short weeks ago when Jeremy had requested my presence at this match against the Hueys. At the time it sounded like a romp, a chance for some good old-fashioned golf competition, but so much had happened since then, that now this final match felt almost like a burden. After the long, drawn out struggle over Paradise Dunes and the Bell Inc. issues I was facing, I was in one of those rare moods when golf had little appeal. My friendship, if I can call it that, with Boxer had taken some of the fun out of hating the Hueys and Jeremy’s drinking had me worrying about his condition. In short, reality had intruded on the sanctity of the golf course. Never a good sign.
I am not one to lose my golf edge for long, though, and the mere appearance of the clubhouse and driving range as we pulled onto the Sandy Hills property awoke my spirit. By the time we were unloading our clubs the smell of the grass and the sound of balls being lofted into the morning sky completed my rehabilitation.
Not one to utter clichés, I avoided stating what I felt: “Let’s do this.”
With so much golf under our belts this week, we needed just the barest warmup on the range, a few quick putts to see how the greens were rolling, and off to Hole #1.
There stood the Hueys, father and son, Clement and Clement, apparently ready and willing, Senior in some kind of Phil Mickelson outfit, all black with a KPMG hat. The starter stood ready as well, clipboard in hand, and five or six members had turned out to watch the event. These situations demanded a certain decorum, including ritual handshakes. Hoping to get a word with Boxer, I turned my back on the others as I greeted him.
“How are you?” I asked softly.
“Twenty-nine days today,” he smiled.
This was significant because thirty days was the first big marker in recovery. You’d made it through an entire month without a drink, something most alcoholics couldn’t and hadn’t done in many years.
“Congratulations,” I said feeling a real joy for this kid. “Good luck today.”
“You too,” he said.
The Hueys had won the coin toss and drove first. As I stood aside with Jeremy he asked what I’d been saying to Boxer. I simply shook my head.
Huey (as I will call Clement Sr.) hit a long power fade that drifted into the light rough far down the first hole. Despite his weight loss, he still could hit the ball longer than any of us. Boxer followed with a bit of a duck hook that went over the mounding that ran along the left side. If he was lucky he’d have a shot. If he wasn’t, he’d lose his ball.
“Christ, Boxer,” said his father. “Hit a damn provisional.”
Boxer did as his father instructed, sending a second ball down the middle of the fairway, a result that occurred more often than not when one had a second chance at taking a golf shot.
Jeremy put his ball in the right rough, though not as long as Huey, and my ball stayed on the fairway, but was the shortest of the four drives.
When Boxer found his ball in the high weeds, he skipped the provisional ball and managed a terrific shot that got him close to the green, while his father’s deft approach put him in birdie range.
On my second shot, I reverted to pulling my irons, forgetting the guidance I’d gotten from my golf teacher Johnny. I wound up in the left greenside bunker while Jeremy overshot the green with an aggressive strike.
After Boxer got up and down, his father sank his putt, and Jeremy and I bogeyed, we were already down by three strokes after one hole.
I may have mentioned earlier the importance of patience in an eighteen-hole golf round. Even the best players, which we certainly were not, have bad holes, but one can often right the ship with one or two good ones. The key is not to get overly flustered, because fluster kills the swing. The tension in the body tends to cause a shortened downswing, a kind of anxiety and impatience to get to the hitting the ball part of the swing, a part that should never be hurried.
As we walked to the second tee, I could feel the fluster emanating from Jeremy’s entire being, and so I reassured him in dulcet tones of our inevitable victory, of the sure failure of the Hueys, and of the ultimate triumph of good over evil. I may not have put these thoughts in exactly those words, but my point was clear: relax, we got this thing.
Jeremy was having none of it. He threw me a dirty look and walked ahead.
A text buzzed in my pocket, and after checking that no one was watching, I removed the phone. It was from Mathis.
At the EPA. They’re sympathetic. More later.
As it happened, the second hole provided none of the respite of which I had reassured Jeremy. Huey’s ball, if anything, flew longer and straighter, mine flew shorter and crookeder, and by the time all four had fallen into the small hole on the big green, we were two more strokes behind.
My concern at this point wasn’t the strokes. Five strokes between four golfers can swing in a single hole. My concern was the psychology of the moment, namely, the Hueys were flying high while we were sinking fast. Despite my best efforts at being the team cheerleader, Jeremy’s attitude seemed to be infecting mine more than mine was resurrecting his.
We survived the third hole with no more damage done, everyone avoiding the water that protected the par three. Now faced with the first par five, my hope for a turnaround was reinforced when Huey’s drive landed in the sand trap that stretched across the fairway some two-hundred-sixty-five yards from the tee. For once my shorter drive was an advantage, keeping me safely on the grass, while Jeremy’s reliable fade put him in the right rough again.
Unfortunately Huey had apparently been practicing the deadly fairway bunker shot, and despite the disadvantageous drive, the pair matched us again, each team getting a bogey and a par.
Still five shots back after four holes, the fifth provided us one of the most interesting challenges of the course. A short par four, the hole tempted long hitters such as Huey to go for the green on the drive, setting up the possibility of an eagle. With a big lead and a trailing wind, apparently Huey couldn’t resist the chance to put the hammer down on us. Unfortunately, hammers can crush thumbs, and something along those lines occurred.
Among the many mistakes a golfer can make is to try to hit the ball too hard. I won’t enumerate all the possible negative results from such an attempt, but they are many and multifarious. Huey’s drive went off the charts, as well as the course. A prodigious hook that penetrated deeply into the pine woods to the left of the green, the shot, being out of bounds, required that Huey drive again, a stroke that would already be his third. Unfortunately (for him) some combination of anger and arrogance impelled him to repeat his first swing, rather than using discretion and backing off. This drive, though not out of bounds, was in the swampy hazard in front of the pine woods. Once he took a drop from there, he would be hitting his fifth shot and not even be on the green. This is what we in the golf world call “a blowup hole.” And none too soon for the Thomas/Bell twosome.
While Boxer and I wisely laid up with irons to the middle of the fairway, avoiding the collection of sand traps in front of the green, Jeremy pulled out his driver and appeared ready to imitate Huey’s foolishness. This was not going to happen.
I actually grabbed his arm, something I’ve never done to a golfing partner.
“No,” I said. “We’re going to get back at least two shots if we don’t do something stupid.”
Jeremy, clearly not used to being addressed in this manner yanked his arm away, stuck his tee in the ground and set up over the ball, waggling his driver aggressively. I dropped my head, not wishing to see our best chance at a momentum change destroyed in one swing. I waited for the sound of the ball being struck, but nothing came. I looked up and Jeremy had returned to his bag for a long iron. Giving me a resentful look, he went back and hit a perfect shot right to the edge of the first bunker in front of the green.
We three players in the fairway hit serviceable wedges onto the green, while Huey went to find his ball in the hazard. After taking his drop, he was looking at a tricky shot over a bunker to a flag that was on the same side of the green, meaning that he needed to get the ball to stop quickly when it landed or he’d have a long putt. This unpleasant position is known as “short-sided.”
As it worked out, a long putt would have been a bargain. Instead, his attempt at a flop shot, one that went far in the air and landed softly, failed miserably as his club made too much contact with the ball, sending it over the green into a bunker on the other side. When all the damage was done, his eight on the par four had shrunk his lead to one. Worse (for him) the momentum had swung radically in our direction.
He and Boxer managed to hang on to their narrow lead through the rest of the front nine. With a short stop for (non-alcoholic) beverages at the turn, we set off for the deciding nine holes.
My phone rang before I reached the tenth tee.
“Don’t answer it,” said Jeremy. “We’re in a tournament.”
I waved the phone at him. “Work,” I lied.
“It’s Paula,” said the lawyer. “The DNREC is ready to shut down Huey.”
I slowed down as I walked up the cart path, letting the rest of the players get ahead.
“The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.”
“That’s awesome!” I said, still trying not to be heard. “So, we’re done?”
“Not quite,” she said. “They have to take it to Judge Calista.”
“Again?” I said. “The same guy who turned us down before?”
“Yeah, and my contact down at the courthouse says Goulding’s office is bringing pressure on him.”
So it was true what Mathis had said about Huey having someone in the governor’s office.
“Calista will have to issue an injunction,” said Paula.
“How did we get him again?”
“The Superior Court rotates who takes these emergency requests, kind of like being on call for a doctor. We just happened to draw him this week.”
“Still, I said. The plovers are endangered.”
“Some people favor developers over plovers,” she said.
I let her go and hurried to catch up with the others.
While there is no greater purpose or meaning to golf outside the bounds of the course itself, that course, is, in a sense, a world of its own, a place we go to escape the trials and tribs of life. The perfect round is not the one with the lowest score, but the one with the least incursion from the so-called real world. Bringing my tribs onto the course in this way was against my principles, but sometimes one must do distasteful things in this life. Or so I’m told.
Nonetheless, the risk one takes in such an incursion can be high, and this I learned upon entering the back nine. Now, just as day follows night and the second hole follows the first, it was time for my own blow up. And blow I did.
First my drive literally went up, as though struck by a wedge, flying high in the air and landing barely sixty yards off the tee. Next, in my efforts to compensate, I tried too hard, which, as I’ve mentioned before is never wise, always foolish, and resulted in a topped five wood which shot off into the woods. Normally I would say I was lucky to find the ball, but given the result of my next shot, which bounced off a tree and actually went backward, I might have been better off losing it.
Jeremy, who was having no such problems, and in fact hadn’t even hit his second shot yet, came to offer support.
“What the fuck are you doing?” were the words he used to encourage me, though I found them more demoralizing than inspiring.
No answer seemed necessary, and I suppose none was really expected, so I walked back to my ball and struck it again. The poor thing must have felt it was being abused.
Did I mention that the tenth hole is a par four? Well, I’d already reached par by this time, though I was still over a hundred yards from the green. Somehow I managed to complete the hole in just three more strokes, but, having shaken Jeremy’s concentration, he got bogie, losing us a total of three shots as Boxer bogied as well.
Back to four strokes down, eight holes to go, the sun reaching its zenith, and the sweat starting to pour, an odd feeling of serenity passed over me. I knew—I don’t know how—that I’d gotten my blowing up out of the way, and though I didn’t know if we’d win, I didn’t think we’d lose.
I glanced over at Huey as he gazed down the par five eleventh, and he looked tired. Despite the weight loss, I had a feeling he wasn’t in great shape. Boxer, twenty-nine days sober, looked like he was flagging as well. Probably thinking about a nice cold one. My energy, on the other hand, was all there.
The last to drive, I got back on track with my longest ball of the day, catching the wind and rolling out almost two-hundred and forty yards, only a dozen or so behind Huey, and matching the others. While reaching the green in two was out of the question, I’d been chipping it well, and when my second shot came to rest inside fifty yards, I knew I had it.
And indeed I did, my chip actually hitting the flagstick on the second bounce and coming to rest a yard away. The kick-in birdie got back one shot.
Boxer’s blowup hole on twelve—not a full blowup, but still, a seven—gave us two more. Going into thirteen we were down one stroke again. Easily within striking distance if we didn’t do anything foolish.
Huey pulled Boxer aside, and though I couldn’t hear him, the gestures and faces he made told me all I needed to know.
Golf isn’t like some sports, say football, where the coach wants to incite the players. Rather, the golfer needs positive encouragement, good thoughts, and a sense of confidence. I doubted Huey had ever been one to give Boxer any of these things, especially not in the heat of golf.
Still, Boxer didn’t fade. In fact, he was the only one to par thirteen, an accomplishment after his blowup, and the Huey lead was back to two.
Fourteen was another short par four, and I wondered if Huey would make the same mistake he’d made on five, trying to over strike the ball.
Again he took out driver, but this time he took a smooth swing, landing the ball two-hundred eighty yards out, where it bounced twice and rolled onto the green.
I didn’t have the distance to accomplish that, and it turned out that Boxer and Jeremy couldn’t do it either. A one putt would put us away, five strokes being more than we could make up in four holes without divine intervention.
Luck was with us, and Huey three-putted. Still two down going into fifteen, a long par three. This drive was in my wheelhouse, as I took three iron and got it to the middle of the green. My birdie got us back to one stroke down.
The Hueys lost another stroke on seventeen so we came to eighteen tied, the tournament on the line. You may recall that this is the hole with water running down the right side. Unlike the classic eighteenth at Pebble Beach and so many of the PGA Tour events, the risk here is of a big slice. If your drive stays dry but goes right, your approach continues to have water to carry, almost to the edge of the green. Not an appealing prospect. Naturally, then, the tendency is to favor the left side, though here too danger lurks in the form of pine forest.
Since we still had the honor, I drove first, trying not so much for distance as straightness. It seems to be a truism of golf that whatever one tries to do, the result is the opposite. One player I know says he always aims at the place he doesn’t want his ball to go. That, he says, is the best way of assuring it doesn’t go there. I myself find that to be not only foolhardy, but smacking of superstition, which has no place in my golf game.
However, in this case, I might have been better served by taking his advice. My attempt to go straight failed miserably, and, counter to my usual form, the ball hooked into the pine forest. A disaster. Jeremy kindly restrained himself from any comment, then drove his own ball straight and true, his best of the day. If only we’d been playing “best ball.”
Huey killed his ball, outdriving Jeremy, but Boxer went toward the water. We all held our breath until we saw it land on the edge of the swamp area.
I entered the pine trees more than a little concerned, and was pleased not only to find my ball right away, but to see that I had a clear shot. I wouldn’t be able to reach the green, but I could get close. And so I did. Strolling out of the trees spinning my six iron, I stopped to watch Boxer hit his second shot. Though he might have tried a courageous shot over the water, he instead chose to lay up, landing a few yards from me. Both his father and Jeremy reached the green with their shots, and I found myself walking up the eighteenth fairway with Boxer.
“Tied up, huh?” I said in way of conversation.
“Pretty exciting,” he said, smiling as if he meant it.
“I shouldn’t tell you this,” I said, “but I think I found a way to stop your father’s development.”
It was strange that I hadn’t told Jeremy or any of the family, but here I was telling the son of the developer. It was, of course, the sense of bond that I had with this young man and his struggle to stay sober that made me want to confide in him. I also sensed that he wouldn’t be unhappy with this news. His smile told me he wasn’t.
“Good,” he said.
He stepped back while I chipped my ball. This was a perfect opportunity to implement Johnny’s lesson on chips shots, hitting the ground first so as to get the ball up in the air. Unfortunately the lesson hadn’t taken, and I chunked the ball twenty feet past the pin. The way we were sitting, our best chance was going to be a tie, which meant being co-champions, an outcome that I thought would probably cause Jeremy more distress than an outright loss, having his name perpetually next to Hueys on the club trophy in the lobby of the clubhouse.
I was away, toward the back of the green, with a long, downhill putt. The worst kind. I could see the line, though, and with nothing to lose I gave it a good strike. Watching it, I liked the way the ball was bending, just as I’d expected. But I could see I’d hit it too hard and it would likely run eight feet past the hole. Instead it kept tracking and hope started rising when, boom, it dropped.
“Yeah!” shouted Jeremy, as he ran over and high-fived me.
If he got down in two and neither of the Hueys birdied, we tied. Boxer went next, from a similar place as me, but his putt did run past the hole almost five feet. A risky distance, but he was good at short putts. I’d seen him sink three or four just like it today.
His father nearly got his birdie putt in, which would have practically sealed a victory. But he lipped out and had to tap in for par. Muttering under his breath, he reached down and took his ball out of the hole. Jeremy got down in two as well, and we all stepped back to watch the inevitable. Boxer took a lot of time, walking behind the hole, crouching behind the putt, and finally settling over the ball. Just before drawing his putter back he looked up at me and winked. Then he proceeded to hit the putt three inches short of the hole.
“Yeah!” shouted Jeremy again as he came toward me.
“Jesus Christ, Boxer,” said his father turning away.
I was stunned, still watching Boxer, who shook his head as if he was disappointed and walked up to tap the ball in. He’d just given us the match.
With traditional golfing etiquette we removed our hats and shook hands. While I was holding Boxer’s hand my phone buzzed in my pocket.
“Thanks, Boxer,” I said quietly. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I was dying to see the look on his face,” he said.
“Well, I hope you figure things out with him.”
My phone buzzed again.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah, let’s make a meeting together.”
As he walked away, I pulled the phone out. Jeremy was replacing his putter in his bag.
The first text was from Mathis.
Done! EPA joined the complaint.
The second one was from Paula Webb.
Judge Carlista issued an injunction. The development must cease while EPA and DNREC review case. Jersey Plover endangered.
“Jeremy,” I called across the green. “Good news!”
He turned to me, but up ahead we heard some turmoil. Huey, standing in front of the clubhouse where thirty people were having drinks on the veranda, had stopped pushing his cart and was shouting into his phone.
“What the hell are you talking about?” he said. The drinkers turned, perhaps expecting a repeat of last year’s vulgar celebration. “That’s bullshit! We’re starting construction on Monday, for Christ’s sake. They can’t do this.”
Boxer turned to me and gave a thumbs up behind his father’s back.
I saw an older couple approaching Huey. It was the Tappitts, the people who had made a down payment on Paradise Dunes.
Holding his phone away, he shouted, “What the fuck do you want?!” and the poor people backed off.
Back on the phone he concluded with a final, “Fuck you!”, threw it into the water hazard, and stormed away.
Jeremy looked at me quizzically.
I just smiled back.
“Plovers?” said Jeremy as we got into the hybrid. “Jersey Fucking Plovers?”
“Frankly, I was amazed too,” I said. “If my daughter hadn’t decided to go canoodling in the dunes, I’d have never found them.”
Jeremy shook his head. “I just can’t believe that after everything that’s gone down, what it took to stop Huey was a couple of sea birds.”
“Isn’t there a proverb?” I said. “’Rome wasn’t built’—no—‘but for want of something or other.’”
“For want of a nail,” said Jeremy.
“It has something to do with a horseshoe getting lost, so the battle is lost and the kingdom is lost.”
“I think there’s another one,” I said.
By now I’d hooked up my phone to the stereo and put on Howlin’ Wolf singing “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy,” which never failed to make me smile—and since I was already smiling, it simply amplified that effect. Nothing like a huge man talking about his weight as a source of happiness for his lovers.
I pounded out the drum triplets on the dashboard between Wolf’s lines: “This is it,” dum, dum, dum, “this is it,” dum, dum, dum, “look what you git.”
Jeremy didn’t complain about the blues.
I texted the beloved so that by the time we got home, the mothers stood by the porch rail cheering while the daughters rushed downstairs as we exited the SUV.
“Good job, boys!” shouted Martha.
Natalie and Lexie hugged me simultaneously.
“I can’t believe you stopped them,” squealed Natalie. “How did you do it?”
“Well, my last putt…” I began.
“Not the golf match!” said Natalie. “The building. The condos.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
Although I considered my final putt to be worthy of equal recognition as my halting Paradise Dunes, others apparently failed to see it that way.
“From now on,” said Lexie, as we walked upstairs. “I’m calling this ‘Plover Dunes.’”
“Great idea,” said Connie, who gave me a rare peck on the cheek. The kiss from my wife was more enthusiastic.
We all went inside where hors d’oeuvres awaited.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” she said. “So you found the birds last night?”
“When I was out traipsing the dunes,” I said.
Glancing over at Natalie, I couldn’t tell if she was blushing or if it was her sunburn.
Chomping on potato chips, I described how my day alternated between texts, phone calls, and golf shots.
“So that’s what you were up to,” said Jeremy. “I never saw you so distracted on a golf course.”
“I didn’t want to say anything, in case.”
“You should have seen Huey,” said Jeremy to the assembled. “He blew his stack.”
“That might have been the most satisfying moment of the day,” I said.
“And what’s up with Boxer?” asked Jeremy. “How did he miss that putt?”
“Ah, that’s another story. Or perhaps a subplot.”
I left it at that, as I felt that his anonymity, not to mention his betrayal of his father, deserved to remain our secret.
The evening proceeded as an epic celebration with Jeremy bringing out a treasured bottle of wine (of which he only had a glass or two), a meal fit for conquering heroes, and an after dinner board game which required everyone to make fools of themselves.
The tension that had floated over and through the household dissipated, and Martha and I felt relaxed enough to make love that night. I hadn’t realized how much the Huey problem had infected her mood as well as mine.
“You did good, Art,” she said to me afterward.
“Aren’t I always good?” I asked.
“Not that,” she said. “Handling the dunes and the Hueys. You really came through.”
Not used to praise from the beloved, I found myself limited in my capacity to respond. I felt certain there was some foreign phrase that applied to the situation, but nothing came to mind.
“Thanks,” I said, adding a kiss to let her know how I felt.
Saturday seemed like the beginning of an actual vacation. One of the rare times my craving for golf was satiated, I happily lounged on the beach. Walker had returned for the weekend, and when I told him about the Paradise Dunes sign, he found it behind the house and tacked it on the wall of his bedroom.
On Sunday afternoon, another beach day, Jeremy’s phone rang. No one looked up from their beach reads until he said “Clement?” and stood up.
He walked back toward the dunes, and we all turned to see what was happening. Holding a hand over his open ear, Jeremy was immersed in the conversation, walking in circles and occasionally kicking at the sand. Finally he ended the call and came back.
“What?” said Connie. “That was Huey?”
“Yes,” said Jeremy with a look that indicated he was still processing what he’d heard. “He wants to donate the dunes so we can create a conservancy.”
“That’s great!” now Connie was on her feet hugging her husband.
“There’s only one condition.”
There was a collective breath holding.
“He wants us to name it after Boxer: ‘Clement Huey Jr. Nature Conservancy.’”
I was the only one who understood what that meant.
* * *
That same evening I ran into Boxer at the AA meeting where I’d first met him.
“You heard what your father is doing?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I think he’s hoping to get a big tax break so he can recoup some of his investment.”
“Hey, whatever it takes,” I said. “But he wants to name it after you.”
“I know,” he said. “We had a bit of a heart to heart, if you can call it that.”
My own perception of Huey was that he had no heart, so this did seem like a stretch.
“So he’s trying to make things up to you?”
“I guess,” he said. “I told him I didn’t want to work for his company anymore.”
“Well, not the worst decision.” In fact, in my mind it was the best decision.
“I got a job at the Sandy Hills pro shop.”
“Great!” I said.
“Yeah, unlimited golf when I’m not working,” he said. “And I got a room in a friend’s apartment where I can stay at least until the end of summer.”
“Good,” I said. “Did you find a sponsor yet?”
“I’m working on it.”
“Don’t work too hard,” I said. “Just ask someone. You’re not getting married, just going through the steps.”
“And thanks again for the putt.”
When he repeated his pleasure in stymieing his father, I could only hope my own child would never be so motivated.
* * *
On Monday morning we woke up to the roar of construction vehicles driving away. I felt a little guilty that the workers were out of luck, but Jeremy told me there were more than enough projects in the area to keep them employed at least until the end of summer.
All of this good fortune could not last, and so when I heard from Emily on Monday afternoon, I wasn’t surprised that it was bad news.
“Trevor and Brian are telling people they’ve got the Dilworth deal locked up,” she told me.
Lounging again on the beach and gazing at the blue horizon, I took a deep breath and tried to care.
“They don’t,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“I’ve been working with that company for a decade, and I know their strategies. As much as anything, they just want to put the squeeze on me. It’s amazing how petty these giant corporations can be. They probably make their employees buy their own coffee for the break room.”
“Well, I’m getting really concerned,” she said. “Half a dozen people seem to be leaning toward joining them.”
“Give me names.”
She did, and I knew what I was going to do next.
“Did Caroline get me that meeting with Cornelius?”
“It’s all set.”
I wondered what the President of the Dilworth Hotel Group, Inc. actually knew about the Initial Study, the IS, and his vice-president’s sacking of Eddie Hauser. These lofty types seemed to fly far above the goings on in their companies, showing more interest in boosting stock prices and flattering the board than actually managing anything.
Sadly, my time at the beach was coming to a close. The next day I’d be on a plane to California to deal with my own problems instead of those of my in-laws. Why did that seem so much less fun?
The two young beloveds had left the four parents an hour ago, and when they returned, they brought a familiar presence.
“This is Larry,” said Natalie. Lexie stood off to the side. She had the look of someone waiting to see how her partner would handle this tricky thirty-foot downhill putt.
Roused from our books and/or stupors, we gazed up to see the red swimming-suited Adonis standing above us. My attitude toward this tanned wonder had changed a great deal since our previous brief encounter. (Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “brief,” as that tends to evoke the more sordid elements of that evening.)
“Well, well,” I said trying to get out of the beach chair which had sunken into the sand under my weight.
“Don’t get up,” he said, pointing over his shoulder. “I’m just on a break.”
Finally standing I shook his hand. “No trouble at all,” I said. “Your little whatchamacallit in the dunes with Natalie wound up solving a big problem for us.”
“Daddy!” said Natalie. “Mama, tell him to stop.” Lexie covered her mouth to stifle a giggle.
By now I’d told the other adults about the circumstances of the plover discovery, a moment that would surely go down in family lore.
“Arthur?” she said. “Must you?”
“That’s okay” said Larry. “Happy to help.”
What could one expect the poor fellow to say?
“Yes, well, that’s fine,” I said. “But you do know that Natalie has a boyfriend at home.”
“Uh,” said Larry.
“Well, in any case,” I said by way of wrapping up. “We appreciate your service, but now I think it would be best if you stayed away from our daughter.”
“Well,” said Larry.
“Don’t listen to him,” said Natalie.
“Really, Arthur,” said Martha. “Is that necessary?”
“I better get back to my post,” said Larry.
“Sounds like a plan,” I said.
“You’re such an asshole,” said Natalie, and she stormed off toward the house. I considered her words and decided that she had a point. But there are limits to what the father of a beautiful young girl can tolerate. And dune canoodling is one of them.
Lexie watched Natalie walk away, then looked at Larry. Finally she found a towel and lay down in the sun.
And Larry was never seen again. At least not by me.
The next day my dear ones remained in Blenheim Beach while I returned to Northern California and the problems of Bell E.D., Inc. Ending the family vacation alone in an airport left me in a state of melancholy. The stress and impersonality of the massive transportation hub washed away any remaining glow from my on-course and off-course heroics of the past week. Now I was just another number awaiting my travel fate. As I perused the golf magazines in the gift shop I received a call from Cornelius’ secretary.
“Mr. Cornelius wants to know if you’re free tomorrow morning,” she asked. Our appointment had been scheduled for two p.m.
“Sure,” I said.
“He’d like you to meet him at his club.”
I suppose this was what I got for being so fanatical about my favorite sport. In a typical week I’m happy if I get to play once or twice, and the previous week I’d been out how many times? Perhaps as many as six eighteen-hole rounds. Then again, Cornelius’ club, a beauty in the hills above the Bay, was worth a little extra effort, so of course I agreed.
Cross-country flights are best described in three words: “We made it.” And so I did. The only interesting development being an email I downloaded somewhere over Nebraska from Paula Webb informing me that she had tipped the local DA to Pat Emory’s potential bribery and the likelihood that the Euro bathroom on the boardwalk also figured in a quid pro quo. I felt sorry for the guy. Another sucker pulled into Huey’s schemes. I just hoped his problems didn’t affect the availability of frozen custard in Blenheim Beach.
It felt somewhat odd to return to an empty home, bereft of beloveds. The typical parent longs for a quiet house with lots of time and space to do as he or she wishes, however, when actually granted such an opportunity, one discovers its limitations, namely silence and emptiness.
After a long day’s travel, I rarely found sleep easily accessible, so I sat on the couch watching the replay of last year’s LRCJ Classic, formerly the San Antonio Open, and relived those dramatic moments I remembered so well.
* * *
My feelings are mixed about early morning golf. On the one hand, there’s nothing more beautiful than a golf course at dawn, the mist rising from the fairways, the cool air, crisp and fresh. On the other hand, it requires getting up early, something I deplore. While this was a sacrifice I made gladly for the Sandy Hills tournament, I’d have been just as happy to meet Cornelius in his office today.
I pulled into the Stone Peak Golf Club, coffee in hand, and was greeted by young men in green polo shirts with the SPGC logo who took the clubs from my trunk and immediately started cleaning them of the Delaware sand and dirt. I found a parking spot and headed for the pro shop.
Before I got there, Cornelius came out looking his usual hale and hearty. “Arthur, so glad you could make it,” said Cornelius and he shook my hand with vigor.
“Thanks for meeting me, John.”
Tall and silver-haired, Cornelius was one of those rise and shine, chipper types. Corporate through and through. My younger self would have seen him as the enemy, but one learns over time not to make too many assumptions just because someone drives a Mercedes and makes too much money. With a wife who taught sociology at Clark College and a daughter who lived in Colorado where she was fighting the frackers, I knew he wasn’t one-dimensional. Or at least his family wasn’t, which couldn’t help but affect him.
As much as I found to admire about Stone Peak, I’d prefer to keep the specifics of that morning’s round private. I’d apparently used up my month’s allotment of good shots at Sandy Hills.
After an opening series of bogeys and double-bogeys, on the sixth tee, a long, downhill par four, Cornelius gave me a wary look.
“Are you letting me win?” he asked. “Because that’s not a good negotiating tactic with me.”
“I wish,” I said and immediately sliced my drive into the canyon. This wasn’t just a blowup hole, it was an entire blowup round. “Anyway, I’m not here to negotiate.”
After the round we sat down in the restaurant and admired the view while working on a pot of coffee. From here we could see four bridges, downtown San Francisco, and right at our feet on the shores of the Bay, the Dilworth hotel project.
“It’s going to be quite a development,” I said pointing to the location for the hotel.
“If it ever gets completed,” said Cornelius. “I understand there’s a problem with groundwater salinity.”
“Yes,” said. “We missed it in our initial analysis.”
“What do you think the full EIR will say?”
“We haven’t been contracted to produce an EIR.”
“You’re the president.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, sampling a scone. “I’ve been vacationing with Beth in Maine. I assumed Collins would move ahead as soon as he saw where we stood with the Initial Study.”
Collins, the V.P. of Hospitality Development, had primary oversight of the project.
“You know he let Eddie Hauser go, right?”
“Oh, Christ,” he said. “No, I didn’t. When was this?” He brushed scone crumbs off his lap.
I found it interesting that Collins had let his boss know about the problems with the IS, but not about firing Eddie.
Cornelius took out his phone, but before he could make a call, I gave him the rundown of Trevor and Brian’s attempts to poach Bell Inc.’s business from Dilworth. I left him with his phone glued to his ear, pacing in front of the picture window that looked down on his company’s future. Or at least part of it.
After tipping the polo shirt boys who had once again cleaned my clubs, I headed back to Berkeley.
* * *
It pains me to say it, but one can only take so much golf, not to mention idle vacation time. At some point, returning to the work routine is actually a relief. And so it felt as I came up the stairs to the offices of Bell Environmental Design, Inc. It was almost lunchtime when I arrived, and only Emily and Caroline knew I was coming back today. I wasn’t expecting a grand reception when I swiped my key card and walked in, but I did expect something other than what I got: muted hellos and furtive glances.
I also noticed something else. The population had shrunk, and those still here were mostly the one’s Emily had brought in from Cal, young women and people of color. When I looked more closely I saw that neither Trevor nor Brian was at his desk.
“Well?” I said when Emily followed me into my office. Caroline was right behind her with a note pad.
“Hold on, Caroline,” said Emily. Caroline looked at me and I shrugged. She turned around and left. Emily closed the door.
“Interesting, huh?” said Emily, pointing out at the office. “All the white guys.”
“That’s who Trevor and Brian are meeting with. Some kind of coffee klatch down on Fourth Street.”
“Not all of them,” I said, noting that several white men remained.
“Okay, not everyone.”
“So this is part of their…?”
“Apparently,” she said.
I waved to Caroline who was standing outside my glass office looking in.
When she opened the door I said, “Would you ask Roger Leake to come in my office?”
“Why do you need IT?” asked Emily.
I didn’t answer.
She was still standing there when Roger came with a digital tablet in his hand.
“How long does it take to reprogram the locks?” I asked.
“And what about replacing the cards?”
“For everyone in the company? That’s takes about a half hour.”
“Caroline, we have, what, twenty-four employees right now?”
“Twenty-five,” she said. “Emily brought in a new intern while you were on vacation.”
“Okay,” I said. “How many people are with Trevor and Brian right now?” I asked Emily.
She looked out at the office and counted. “Four,” she said.
“Okay, Roger,” I said. “Make twenty cards.”
“Shouldn’t it be nineteen?” asked Emily.
“I like to have two,” I said.
By the time the banging started on the door, I’d had a full staff meeting with those present and informed them of the situation. I also asked them not to answer the door. After a few moments the knocking stopped, as apparently the six of them had checked their email and seen that they’d been fired. They’d been informed that they could clear out their desks tomorrow. Today I was having Roger back up all their computers.
Later that afternoon I had a meeting with Emily.
“How’s the latest crop of Cal grads look?” I asked her.
“Good,” she said. “That intern I hired has real potential.”
“Well, let’s see if we can get some more resumes and start recruiting.”
* * *
It was two days later when I was waiting at the foot of the escalator at Oakland International Airport that I heard from Eddie Hauser.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“I’m back at Dilworth,” he said. “Cornelius said he had a meeting with you.”
“I only told him what happened,” I said. “He was apparently on vacation when Collins fired you. So you’re back at your old job?”
“Not even,” he said. “I’m now V.P. of Hospitality Development.”
“What happened to Collins?”
“He got my old position,” he chuckled. “Unemployed former Dilworth employee.”
“You’re kidding.” A crowd surged onto the escalator above, struggling to keep roller bags upright. I scanned the moving stairs for the beloveds.
“So, I owe you,” said Eddie.
“No, you don’t have to—“
“That’s why I’m letting you in on Eco-Balls.”
“On what?” Half-listening I caught sight of a middle-aged woman and a teenaged girl at the top of the escalator, but when they looked up, I saw it wasn’t them.
“EcoBalls are going to change the golf world. I’ve invested all my savings into them—they’re a startup in Chico—and I think I can get you in.”
“Eddie, what are you talking about?” A baggage carousel started turning off to my left.
“You know how I told you I didn’t use new balls anymore because of the environment?”
His drunken round at Monarch Bay came back to me.
“Well, these things solve that. They’re hundred-percent recyclable, made of organically friendly, compostable materials.”
“That’s what I’m telling you,” he said. “It’s a great investment.”
“But, Eddie,” I said, finally paying attention. “How do they play?”
“Is that all you care about?” he said. “What about the environment?”
Talk about moral dilemmas: my golf game versus the environment. This was a question I wasn’t ready to address at the moment.
Just then the beloveds came rolling down the escalator saving me from making the choice.
“Gotta go, Eddie,” I said. “I’ll call you.”
“Don’t wait,” he said and hung up.
“Daddy!” shouted Natalie as she embraced me.
“Thanks for picking us up, Art,” said Martha, joining the hug and adding a kiss.
My phone started buzzing again, and I looked at the ID: Trevor Day. I swiped “Reject” and took the handle of Martha’s roller bag and led them out of the airport.