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The Fire

On the day of the fire, my father and I stood in the snowy parking lot of my apartment complex and watched the water from the hoses transform my basement unit into a wading pool. The smoke escaping from the broken windows of the four-story brick building drifted upward, stopping about fifty feet above the flat rooftop. There it hung–not black, exactly, more a charcoal gray–a result of some freak inversion effect causing it to hang there for hours after the last flames had been doused, a lingering reminder of my current circumstance.

The next day, when the thaw hit, everything began to melt, and I began to move out. We walked through the foot-high water in my living room, floating paperback books and record albums bobbing around like so much litter in a polluted lake.

“Get those up,” my father said, pointing to a corner of the room.

Like a corpse doing a dead man’s float, my brand new golf bag with a new set of Tour blades was knocking against a wall from the waves we made by moving about the apartment. I gathered them up, heavy with water and grime, and threw the bag over my shoulder as a caddy does when he readies himself to walk a fairway. All I wanted then was to head to a range; hit some balls; swing free and easy and ready myself for the next round, but that wouldn’t come for months. We silently walked out of the mess and into the snowy daylight and freedom of the parking lot, puddles and snow melting all around us. I leaned the bag against my truck, shivering, cold from wading through my apartment. We stood there, an old man and his grown son, and hugged. It was the first time he’d hugged me since I was a kid. It was the last time he’d ever hug me.

That set of golf clubs had been one of many I’d owned throughout my life. When I was a boy, my father had brought me home my first golf club, which he’d found in the bin of used clubs at the pro shop of the course where he played every week with his buddies from work. My father was an electrical engineer, and worked for a defense contractor. His real love, though, was the game he played once a week, weather permitting. We lived together, just the two of us, in a small town in Massachusetts. This was long after my mother had left us and then died in a car accident. His golf day was Saturday, and on the particular Saturday he brought me the club I was twelve and, at that time, was gradually becoming aware of his affinity for the game. We watched the pros on television often, and he’d speak in reverential tones about their abilities, as if these were traits everyman should have. “See?” he would say. “Do you see the concentration? The focus?”

From the moment I first held that junior 7-iron with a facsimile of Chi Chi Rodriguez’s signature etched into the back, I set out to learn the game of golf. It was a good way to break into it, my father said, having just the single club.

“Learn it a club at a time,” he said, “if you ever want to be a shot-maker.”

I carried that club with me wherever I went. I’d stand in front of our black and white television on Saturday or Sunday afternoons studying the pros, imitating their swings, in awe of their calm under pressure. Sometimes I stood at attention, as I would in church during those times when you’re supposed to be quiet, in total silence while the announcer whispered about Jack Nicklaus looking over a five-footer for par, or Arnold Palmer on the tee hitting another big drive–always striking the ball so hard it looked as if he’d need traction for the torque he’d exerted on his back.

“He’s trying to hurt that ball,” my father said with a smile.

Back then, Tiger Woods wasn’t even born yet; the best golfers were guys like Nicklaus and Palmer and Gary Player, playing at places with names that captured my imagination: Augusta, Baltusrol, Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot, The Royal & Ancient, and Pinehurst #2.

My father was like many fathers, apt to point out to his son life’s lessons from the minutia of the seemingly unremarkable. He wasn’t big on platitudes, though. He’d never say a thing like, “There aren’t any shortcuts to success,” or “If at first you don't succeed try, try again.” For him, golf and the professionals we watched transcended what until then to me were simply clubs and balls and pretty pictures of fairways and greens. I gradually came to understand that the expanse of a golf course was more a place of refuge where you were alone with your thoughts, challenged yourself in small ways, where subtle changes have profound effects on final results.

Walking around my neighborhood, cutting through neighbors’ yards with friends or even by myself, I could be seen with Chi Chi on my shoulder, a twelve year old boy dreaming of becoming a shot-maker—to have the characteristics my father found so important: confidence, focus, driven by the desire to be excellent at something. Nothing then, or now, provided more motivation for me than to make my father proud of me. At first I played in my backyard with plastic golf balls, and then, sometimes with my father, went down to the school playground with used balls from his bag.

“Bea shot-maker, Pete,” he would say.

It seemed that I shanked and hooked and sliced a thousand shots before I’d move to the next club. I’d spray balls across that field at every angle and trajectory in my sometimes futile attempt at mastering a club. Eventually, I graduated to a full set, learning each club as my father prescribed.

One summer, I was probably thirteen or fourteen by then, my friends and I laid out a nine-hole par three golf course on the playground. We used just our 7-irons, a club that typically yielded shots of a hundred thirty yards or so for us. The course incorporated a parking lot as a water hazard, and the woods all around as out of bounds. If you hit the school building, it was a two-shot penalty. Given our love for the sound of smashing glass, if you broke a window it was only a one-shot penalty, even if your ball was lost inside the school. We used the jungle gyms, slides, swing sets, see-saws and even a sewer grate, all scattered across the field, as the holes. Hit the target and you were considered “in.” Win the match and you’d win the Masters, or one of the Opens or the PGA.

As I practiced early on and learned more about the game from my father and from the pros on television, I decided I’d always be a golfer. But I never wanted to be a professional golfer. I would leave that to those on the Tour, the disciplined players who could get home from a hanging lie two-hundred fifty yards from a green surrounded by deep bunkers or water. Me, it’s taken time, but I’ve developed a serviceable game--one that comes and goes, takes me to the heights of joy as much as it does to the lowest levels of frustration. I’ve played many rounds, even won a couple local tournaments like my father did, but making a career out of it wasn’t for me. I could never take up as a profession that which I love so well.

Growing up, I spent most of my time outdoors. It’s what comes with living alone with your dad. When he was at home, he’d give me things to do around the house, and do things with me, help with homework or talk about golf techniques. When he was at work or out with his buddies, he gave me leave to do what I wanted, which usually meant walking the neighborhood streets with my friends, playing in the woods, golfing on the playground. He was there for me when I needed him, though. Years later, when Tom Taylor set fire to my apartment building, causing most of my belongings to suffer water damage, my father was there carrying furniture and soggy books out of my apartment and into a rental van. It took us two days in that January thaw, and by then he was nearly seventy years old.

And so, I grew to be most comfortable outdoors. I love the smell of fallen leaves, the greens and yellows of the grass during summer, and the sun on my shoulders year-round. Landscaping just seemed to happen naturally. Not a glamorous career, as my father often reminded me, but I’m outside most of the year, and I know everything there is to know about lawn care in this part of the country. The northeast presents challenges for grass because the weather varies to extremes between the cold winters and the humidity of the summers. When a customer wants to know about bluegrasses, fescues, ryegrasses and bent grasses, and which ones are best adapted here, I’m your man. I tell them I’m particularly fond of Kentucky Bluegrass for its excellent recuperative and reproductive capacity. It develops a dense turf stand, has excellent color and mows more cleanly than tougher-bladed grasses such as perennial ryegrass. It also has greater cold tolerance than either perennial ryegrass or tall fescue.

True, I spend winters doing other activities to keep me financially afloat, like snow plowing. But winter doesn’t mean that I stop thinking about golf. I still practice my swing indoors, where I can also do my visualization exercises. I close my eyes and see myself making shots, hitting fairways off the tee, dropping a 3-iron softly onto a postage stamp green from two-twenty, making a thirty-foot bender for a par. Sometimes I imagine I’m at the tee of the 12 hole at Augusta, my father in the gallery, looking at a hundred fifty-five yarder with a narrow, canted green guarded by Rae’s Creek. A shot-maker’s hole. Hit it too high and the wind can get hold of your ball and knock it down into the water or move it away from target; too low and you can skip it into the rear bunker, setting yourself up for a come-backer with the water waiting on the far side of the green. I picture myself dropping a 7-iron right next to the pin–every time.

Although the smell of the fire clinged to every article of furniture, clothing and other fixtures and accessories I owned, we dried it all out as best we could, packed up what was salvageable and moved me here. This was three years ago. I think the smell is gone now, but maybe I’ve gotten so used to it that I just don’t notice it anymore.

Were it not for my living room being in a state of disarray, it would be a pleasant setting for quiet summer nights like this one. I have proof. Photographs, currently in a safe deposit box, were done for insurance purposes at my father’s suggestion. He photographed this entire apartment, each and every surviving item, and packaged them all up in a photo album. He looked haggard that day after we’d finished moving, a little more hunched over than normal, his skin tone growing paler by the moment.

I told him to be careful, that he’d exerted himself more than necessary, but he scoffed at the idea of slowing down and said, simply, “Next time you’ll be ready.”

The photos he handed to me show a room that is more than just livable, no question; it was to be envied. But since I moved, I’m not a good cleaner. Except for narrow paths from the living room to the kitchen to the bedroom to the only bathroom in the apartment, the hardwood floor has gone missing. Scattered around the apartment is my album collection of nearly a thousand, some without their original covers, lost in the fire.The albums aren’t the principal component of the clutter. Books and magazines, some in piles, some scattered, are everywhere. There’s unwashed silverware, unopened mail, opened mail, pocket change, soda bottles and cans, a pizza box, a few golf balls, an overturned table lamp broken from an errant practice swing, a Wilson persimmon head driver, a leather-gripped Tour bladed 7-iron and, of course, the record albums. All of the albums were once alphabetized within their respective genres: rock, jazz, classical, etc. Now none are alphabetical and most are unplayable.

Tom Taylor was never arrested for starting the fire. It was generally agreed, though, by those of us who were affected by the fire, that he’d done it. We’d heard the apartment complex, which he owned with a partner, was in the way of a larger development they’d wanted to build. According to the police, though, nothing could be proven. To what I’m sure was Tom’s great disappointment, one of my neighbors reported the fire before it could do permanent damage, so it wasn’t a total loss for insurance purposes. I’m guessing that at this point Tom has found other opportunities in real estate.

Like me, Tom was a golfer of some merit, and more than once the two of us had casually discussed what it would take to own and operate a golf course. He’d not been a member at a private club then, preferring to accept the invitations of those who were members. He often said he admired my turf knowledge and my abilities as a landscaper, and that one day he hoped he’d be able to offer me an opportunity to use my talents on something, in his words, “more substantial than just cutting and seeding lawns and doing yard clean ups.” Now, this, of course, was before the fire, and if Tom has similar aspirations now, I haven’t heard. He took golf seriously, though, and had a particular source of pride that he seemed to take great care in nurturing: Tom had an uncanny resemblance to Gary Player. The only thing missing was Player’s South African accent. A golfer well known for being in great physical condition, Player wore black almost exclusively. He had a certain appeal among fans and stature among his competition as someone to be admired, if for nothing else than his excellent sense of style. Nobody looked better in a pair of black slacks, a black short-sleeve Perry Ellis buttoned to the top, and black pullover vest than Gary Player. Tom, who like Player was short and slight, wore only black, even in summer. Just the way the pant leg fell off their knees and down to their feet, with the crease bending at the ankle; and their shoulders, broad as they were, accented perfectly by the ubiquitous vest. These were golfers with style.

After years of being a landscaper, I’d grown used to my father’s occasional politely negative commentary about my career choice. Although he said he was proud of me a number of times, he did express his concern about the inherent pitfalls of being a small business owner.

“A guy working out of his truck with a couple lawn mowers and a two-man crew is not a viable business long-term,” he would tell me.

Sure, I struggled for a while—all with the unstated aim of making him proud of me. It took me years to understand how to manage the costs associated with equipment upkeep and payroll. Not to mention the little things like billing customers, paying for supplies; and then there’s just dealing with customers, which in my case is more of a challenge because, for better or worse, my clientele have always been what I would consider wealthy – another way of saying that they’re know-it-alls with nothing better to do than tell me how to do my job. Just because a guy’s a doctor, he figures he knows everything. I have debated turf types with surgeons who don’t know the difference between a Bermuda grass and a fescue. One guy thought a rhizome had something to do with the atmosphere. Then there’s the financial side of dealing with customers. Ever try to get fifty bucks out of the president of a bank? Or from some thirty-year old millionaire? Let me tell you, there’s a reason rich people are rich. I maintain my cool, though. I’ve never come to blows with a customer. If they begin to piss me off, I smile and think of something else. Not a particularly healthy habit, I know.

All this, of course, validated to some extent my father’s argument in the first place. But I’d hoped he would eventually come to understand that I was happy staying small and playing golf, something I would ask him about now if he were still alive. I wish he hadn’t exerted himself so much during my move. I just wish he could be here now so we could talk some more about it; so he could see that although it’s been difficult, it’s also been rewarding.

I pick up the 7-iron now, from its resting place on top of an album stack, and take a sniff of the blade. No sign of smoke, just the sweet smell of summer grass. I’ve been thinking about something lately. Why not bring the playground golf course concept to my current neighborhood? My concern, of course, has been how my neighbors will react to this, but given that my golf game is far superior to that of my youth, I’m hoping my improved shot control will ease their concerns. I now live in an exclusively residential area of the city, at the intersection of five streets, creating a diagonal span between the farthest house from mine of about a hundred fifty to a hundred sixty yards, the current length for my 7-iron. This open space across pavement is especially appealing because it will give me an opportunity to work on the height of my shot, which lately has inexplicably flattened.

In addition to that, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to make a confident club selection. My father, I’m sure, would suggest that I just keep at it. Go to the range, he’d say, and practice. Even on the day he died, it’s one of the last things we talked about before I finally convinced him to go home and get some rest. When I got the call that he’d been rushed to the hospital, I’d been putting the finishing touches on organizing my new home. This was different from when my mother had died. Back then, I wasn’t old enough to appreciate any of it. I didn’t understand that my father’s grieving for her, despite the fact that she had left him, was an ongoing process that was wrapped up in everything he did and said. All he ever told me about her leaving was that she’d left to find something that she hadn’t ever found with him. Knowing the man as I did, I could see that his pensive demeanor might have been hard to live with. It was all in his head. As I was sitting next to him in the Intensive Care Unit, watching the machines keep him alive, I thought about how he was leaving me, and knew for the first time how he must have felt all those years about my mother having left.

He died that evening. The doctor said his heart gave out.

I practice addressing the ball now as I consider my ever-evolving plan. After reflecting on what I thought would be my father’s advice, I approached the local pro the other day at the driving range and had him watch me hit a few shots.

“You’re stiff on the back swing,” he said.

“You would be too,” I said, “if you raked, planted, seeded or cut fifty lawns a week during the summer.” Clearly he was more a student of swing mechanics than of the mental game of golf, which I’m betting is the real issue. This guy's got it easy, I thought, and I told him so. Out in the real golfing world there are greens to hit, not just plywood signs with numbers painted on them like at the range. Did he think Gary Player’s game got better by aiming at the person inside the little cage of the tractor retrieving balls at the range? Player could choose the right club at the right time every time, and always be in style. Until Tiger, golfers everywhere didn’t fully appreciate the combination of style and substance. For me, although I appreciate and admire style, I don’t have any. I can’t match a smart pair of slacks with a nicely fitting shirt. Even if I did, I don’t have the right body type to do it justice. Although my shoulders are nicely square, my legs are too short. I’ve got to be a shot-maker. If I can’t choose the club to get home with, I’m dead.

“Forget my back,” I said to the pro. “Get into my head. Help me get home. I need to pick a club!”

But he was unrelenting, insisting that if I was serious about my golf game, I’d consider a career change. This, I thought, sounds too much like my father talking to me about the landscaping business. Although he never would have suggested that my game would improve if I changed careers. Still, it resonated with me enough that I immediately terminated my relationship with the pro. With my plan for a neighborhood golf course, I won’t need him anyway.

The logical next step, then, is to speak with all those neighbors whose front yards will serve as the holes, and especially speak to the owners of the house a full 7-iron away. There’s a young dogwood that’s perfect for the pin, centered as it is between a driveway and a flagstone walkway. And, more good news: these neighbors are new, having moved in just last week. All I need to do, I hope, is to become friendly with them, and maybe offer them free lawn care.

I’m a planner by nature, and although this may seem like an over-simplification for the task at hand, I’m also a firm believer in meeting things head on. I look out my second story window now across the expanse of pavement toward the house in question, a 1920’s village colonial with white clapboard and newly installed energy-efficient double-hung windows. A red SUV sits in the driveway.

I hold the leather grip of the 7-iron, interlocking my fingers as I would on the golf course, and swing the club in slow motion, imagining the ball dropping softly onto my neighbor’s grass within inches of the dogwood tree. This, I think, is something I wish my father could be here to see.

Stuffing three golf balls into the pocket of my shorts, I walk down the stairs and onto my front porch. The smell is of humid city air mixed with cut grass, as a neighbor down the block mows his lawn. I stand on my own grass looking down at my feet, still clad in work boots. Although I rent, my landlord’s allowed me to experiment on this lawn as long as I take care of it. I planted creeping red, a fine fescue, before last winter and then tried over-seeding with Kentucky Bluegrass. The turf is performing quite well, and will make an excellent first tee. I consider getting my golf shoes out of my golf bag, but instead I drop the golf balls onto the grass and begin to take practice swings in earnest. My back is sore as usual, and as I stop to stretch I see someone walking across the designated first green.

He’s far enough away so I can see only that it is a man and not a woman, and that he’s dressed well, if not unusually, for this humid summer night. It being dusk, colors are sometimes difficult to distinguish, especially dark ones. I remember once buying what I thought was a black shirt only to find it was dark green, so I don’t want to be quick to judge. I stand completely still, and squint.

He walks from the SUV to the dogwood, dragging something behind him what appears to be a hose and sprinkler. Good lawn care is an admirable trait in anyone, and I’m delighted in this case for obvious reasons. At least as far as the lawn care goes. Gradually, though, it’s registering with me: not only is this guy wearing black, long pants and all, but he’s somewhat short with short hair and an excellent sense of style. My back begins to feel worse as I think about short golfers in good shape and the people they resemble.

There's very little traffic in the neighborhood tonight. The sky darkens as the sun begins to set, so I need to act fast. Whoever my new neighbor is, he's gone back into the house. I’ve abandoned my original plan, the one that included me endearing myself to these new folks. A new plan begins to take shape, but before I implement it, I need to be sure who I'm dealing with. I pick up one of the golf balls and stuff it into my back pocket. With the Tour blade on my shoulder, a grown-up version of that little kid who long ago toured the neighborhoods with a junior Chi Chi Rodriguez on his shoulder, I walk the expanse of pavement toward the house. I silently count the paces from my house to the neighbor's as I walk, three feet to a step. I'm thinking: why not confirm the distance?

I keep my eyes focused on the yard in hopes of seeing this guy again, in hopes of making a final determination that it is not Tom.

Eighty yards so far.

Nothing would make me happier than to discover that I've made a terrible mistake. Chalk it up to a long day in the sun. Maybe my new neighbor and I will laugh about it over a beer. Another guy dressed like Gary Player, that's not unusual. Good style is always “in.”

I imagine anyone seeing me now assumes I'm just taking a pleasant stroll, maybe headed the several blocks to the field down the street to practice chip shots. I’ve done it before.

One hundred and twenty-three yards.

A car drives by as I get closer to the house. The sprinkler passes back and forth on the lawn.

I'm less than a chip shot away now and I see movement in the house. A light is on in one of the first floor rooms. Silhouettes of a man and a woman behind a drawn curtain move around. The front door swings open and Tom Taylor walks out. He doesn't see me at first. I stop.

One fifty-one to the curb.

“Hello,” I say, and he turns. There is no recognition in his face.

“Hi.” He looks at the 7-iron on my shoulder. I think he’s scared. I like that.

I take the golf ball from my pocket and toss it up and down. I consider doing a Tiger Woods, using the club head and golf ball like a paddle and rubber ball, but I'm not in the mood to show off. I don't know what to do now, but I do know I don’t want this guy as a neighbor, especially in the house that was to have been the first hole in my neighborhood golf course. And there’s no way I’m going to give him free lawn care.

I don't say anything else. I turn and walk toward my house because I know what must be done. It's almost completely dark now, so I'll need to rely on street lights and light from the surrounding houses. When I reach my house, I lean the 7-iron against my truck, and go to my storage area in the basement. There, beneath more clutter, is a three gallon plastic container filled with used balls I've accumulated over many years. I never can bring myself just to throw them away.

Call it an adrenaline rush, I don't know, but my back doesn't bother me as I carry it out of the basement and onto the lawn. Next, I retrieve my golf bag from the apartment, set it up next to me, and then tilt the container of balls enough so that about fifty balls fall out. I’ll need all of my clubs tonight.

The first shot, a 7-iron, is lost in the darkness. I hear it thwack against something solid, probably the side of a house, but certainly not Tom's. The next shot, though, is perfect. It's a big 7-iron, a majestic 7-iron, a Tiger 7-iron, high and far. Although I never see it in flight, from the moment I hit it I know it's on target. The shattering of glass from Tom's second story window confirms it. That’s a one-shot penalty, I think. But I shake that off and continue. I practice drives and fairway woods. I practice drawing the ball with my 3-iron, and slicing it with the 5-iron. His SUV is the unfortunate recipient of an errant shot when I falter a little, my 6-iron trajectory flattens, and the ball careens off the pavement and into its tailgate. The thwunk from hitting the roof of the house, though, is especially satisfying. Tom's yells grow louder now, as he stands next to the dogwood.

Neighbors watch the commotion from their doorsteps and yards. That last 7-iron was pin high, ten yards right.

I'm in a groove.

I can feel it now, Dad.

I’m a focused shot-maker tonight. I could hit any target: swing set, jungle gym, see-saw. I could be on the 12 at Augusta and I would have no fear. That tiny green is mine. The water hazard? Not even in play. I’m outside at work and the club selection is spot-on. A little to the left and I'll be home.

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