Another Saturday junior golf tournament and no one took it seriously, except for Vic. This was another opportunity to grind, an unavoidable crucible in which his career would be forged. That’s how Vic was raised.
His partner for the day was Chuck Bertram. Those kinds of names were so common in the junior golf world, names you’d expect to find on a forty-year-old man. A notoriously skilled player that won more than half the tournaments he entered, Bertram was arguably the best golfer sixteen or under in Indiana and definitely the best in the southern half of the state. His swing was idiosyncratic but his results were excellent, mostly because of a best-in-class short game and some real artistry with a putter.
To Vic he was the ultimate rival. His win rate, his skillset, his looks, everything about him made him a perfect enemy. He’d come close to beating Bertram once, during an even smaller tournament of about 5 entrants that served mostly as an opportunity for practice. It had been at Vic’s country club and Bertram hadn’t really been not trying, but still Vic held onto the memory. To have nearly outdone such a shining example of young golferness was a thing to be cherished.
Their tee time came: 11:30. A late start, which meant Bertram wouldn’t get to post an early number in the 70s and sit back watching the 80s and 90s roll in. He’d have to sweat it a little bit, see somebody put up a 39 at the turn and have to know that now was the time to shoot low. For Vic it was nothing short of a duel, though he hadn’t scored below 82 in tournament play since he was in the bottom flight of the Southwestern Indiana Young Men’s Championship, when they moved the tees forward instead of playing from the back. Regardless, Vic genuinely believed he had a chance to outplay Bertram, truly thought that he could make it to the 18th hole with the smaller number.
He had to, or his father would never forgive him for the humiliation.
At the tee box Bertram reached out and shook Vic’s hand. “Hey, let’s have fun,” he said. He held on just a little too firm and let his eyes rest on Vic’s a little too long. Vic understood the message. He was here to win, this time.
Vic nodded. Bertram teed up his ball and selected a driver from out of his slumpy, lightweight PING golf bag. He addressed the ball, standing just a bit too close and with arms just a little too lank. He pulled the club back and swung through. His action was loose, languid, just like him. His body flowed and looped, his muscles flexing and relaxing in a way that Vic envied. Looking at it, the guy’s swing should not have produced results, but it did. His drive went right down the middle, not nearly as far as the bombs Vic was capable of producing, but still a solid first shot.
“Nice,” said Vic. He held a new Titleist ball in one hand and his TaylorMade driver in the other. His father had wanted him to use Nikes, like he did, but Vic had insisted that this combo suited him better.
He stuck the tee into the still-damp grass and balanced the dimpled, shining ball on top of it. He stood behind, lined up his shot, and took his starting position. He kept his swing thoughts in his head as best he could: Drive with the lower body, feet parallel to target line, left arm firm, shoulders back, hips relaxed. It was all too much for him to keep track of, but this is what his father had downloaded into his mind. His last thought as he let loose, blasted it damn near 300 yards in the wrong direction and into the trees, was Fuck it.
Vic had gotten started playing golf around the age of eight, when his father had taken him along and he had turned out to have some small ability to get the ball airborne, which was more than most could say for their first time at the game. The father had been impressed, and had started bringing him along whenever they went to the driving range. Vic found it to be a pleasurable form of exercise, and it was a good excuse to be near his father, a stern Nigerian man with whom he had a distant relationship made up largely of punishment and ignorance. Discipline seemed more important than affection, and because of this Vic was significantly closer to his mother, a well-intentioned white woman that endlessly coddled him.
In time, the nightly trips to the golf range had morphed from casual father-son time to serious training. Vic expressed a desire to become skilled at the game, and the father, long concerned that he was raising a non-athletic sissy, jumped at the opportunity. Vic had washed out of tennis, basketball, and most recently soccer, due to a lack of hand-eye coordination and a general disinterest in chasing after balls. With golf, the stationary ball made it more a matter of thought, something he greatly appreciated.
But with the change came a ramping of intensity. Whereas before his father had been content to slap Vic occasionally or confine him to a corner for mouthing off, there were now regular military-esque dressing-downs any time Vic’s performance was anything less than virtuosic. Looking for a rationale, the father would chalk up his screams to Vic’s failure to listen, his consuming valuable time. Eventually, he would bring up the crux of the argument.
“How do you think Tiger got where he got?” he would ask a crying Vic. “He listened to his father.”
Tiger Woods. The deity to which Vic aspired. A legend, the man who had dominated the sport not only by being the best golfer alive, not only being one of the finest athletes who ever lived, but by doing it all while being black. Vic had two different biographies of the man, one authorized, one not, and he studied his instructional book with religious fervor. It was Tiger’s swing that the father used to train Vic, flaws and all, and it was his style of overpowering play, relying on massive drives and artful scrambling, on which Vic based his own game.
This had been incepted into Vic’s psyche by his father, who adored the story of Tiger Woods, especially the large part his father Earl played in the tale. Vic was supposed to be, in every way, the next Tiger Woods, a perfect facsimile with lighter skin, proof that Tiger was not a fluke and that black men could play golf. Vic’s father forced emulation in physicality and socialization, admonishing the admittedly fey Vic to carry himself like Tiger and not swish around, to speak from his chest, to be a man, and to show little interest in people his own age. Vic was pulled out of school and classes were done at home, so as not to disturb his development with drugs or sex or friends. The father joined a country club, so that they would have easy access to superior facilities. Video games were to be kept to an hour a day, the only thing on television was golf, and class work was understood to be secondary to getting to the driving range every night. Girlfriends were prohibited, though the idea that there would one day be a perfect European wife who knew her place was considered to be a given.
All was as it should have been for the project to succeed. Only one flaw: Once on the course, Vic didn’t turn out the low numbers his excellent swing and steady putting stroke would belie. Instead he would often lose balls, his eyesight not being good enough to track them. He would mess up simple chip shots, shank irons, his aim was atrocious, and he couldn’t shape a ball for anything. His game just did not come together the way the individual parts would imply, and for this he earned his father’s everlasting ire. In time, their training grew to resemble less athletics and more of a psychological dance. Vic would accompany the father to practice, they would each set down their bucket of balls, and as the father watched he would become increasingly incensed at Vic’s failure to follow his commands, which only grew more esoteric with time.
“Use your hip. There should be a reference between your hip and your shoulder. No not like that, you’re using your hand. Use your hip. No! You’re not using your leg, your hand is running away. Listen to me.”
On days when they played it was mostly silent. The father would drink while playing, and as the beer diminished and they progressed further down the course he would grow increasingly angry, slamming clubs, taking out chunks of grass, uttering terse admonishments to Vic. It was his silence that was most fearful, and he would drive back to the house with all the bearing and grace of a metal statue.
“What’s wrong,” the mother would say, and the father would simply shake his head, pour a brandy, and sit down behind his computer, suffused with frustration beyond rational thought. Vic would swell with guilt and sit down in front of the television, dutifully watching Tiger break another record and trying, praying, that he could be like that.
The other junior golfers in the area were seen by the father as a microcosm of the larger world of golf. Overwhelmingly white and well off, they were portrayed by Vic’s father as inferior specimens overburdened with wealth, ignorant Hoosier trash, scions of bigotry to be squashed. Vic’s inability to do any squashing was a betrayal of the narrative, an aberration to be corrected with more discipline, longer hours at the range, more verbal abuse.
Bertram was the worst among them. His father considered him to be an unkempt bum with money, with far less talent than Vic. The father even went so far as to label Bertram a homosexual, an aberrant degenerate in every way unworthy to brush Vic’s spikes. The only reason he outclassed Vic time after time was Vic’s continuing inability to listen.
It was this which drove Vic to want so badly to defeat Bertram, truly beat him, prove once and for all that the time and effort put into his development had not been a mistake but would rather pay dividend upon dividend, that he was a worthy use of energy, a picture of athletic masculinity and a valid challenger to Tiger.
By the back nine it became clear that, far from closing in on Bertram, Vic had never been more behind. On the front nine Bertram had produced a one-over par 37, some of the best golf he’d played in competition. Vic rested at an even 50.
“Hey,” Bertram said by way of consolation. “You get off days.”
Vic nodded tersely. What an insult, to acknowledge the failing of a boy who would surely become number one in the world.
Bertram hit an absolute beauty of a drive on the sixteenth hole. Despite the length of the day, he was actually hitting deeper off the tee as time went on, as if he was gaining in strength. Vic meanwhile, sweating profusely through his knit polo shirt, was barely able to swing the club, much less produce anything resembling a proper stroke.
His tee shot was a pathetic fart, a slice that dribbled off into the rough a good twenty yards behind Bertram.
“Shit,” he said, then remembered his manners. “I’m sorry.”
Bertram shrugged. “Dude, I don’t fucking care.”
The sixteenth hole was a par five. Driver, two-iron should have theoretically put Vic on the green, but instead he had to hack a seven-iron out of the rough and back onto the fairway, where he magnificently topped a three-wood which dove into the rough on the opposite side of the fairway. From there he had to pop it out with a wedge, except he mishit that and didn’t escape the rough, advancing it closer to the green but still in long grass.
Bertram, he’d played it safe. After his drive he laid up with a 5-iron, then played a pitching wedge tight by the pin. Easy birdie.
And it was at that moment, standing over his own fifth shot and watching his rival effortlessly tear the hole apart, that Vic decided he had enough.
They played out the rest of the round. Bertram went lower than he had all year, a 75. Three over par. Vic didn’t break 100.
“Good game,” said Bertram.
Vic grunted agreement. All he wanted was to go home.
“Hey, we should exchange numbers,” said Bertram. “Play again sometime. You got a cell phone?”
Vic did have one, ostensibly for emergency purposes as he didn’t know anyone to talk to. He spat out his number to Bertram, who hurriedly scribbled it onto his scorecard. Vic wasn’t sure why he gave it.
The car ride back with the father was another exercise in absolute silence. He didn’t even put on the radio, and Vic didn’t dare to try and play music.
“How’d you do?” said the mother by way of greeting, her tone bright. Her face fell when she realized the silence standing between Vic and his father. “What are you going to do about this?” she asked. “You have to learn to play better if you’re ever going to be a phenom. Is it your glasses? What is it?”
“He won’t listen,” said the father. He poured himself a triple brandy over a glass full of ice and added seltzer water. “He won’t listen.”
“I listen just fine,” said Vic.
“Did I ask you? No? Then shut up.”
“I don’t want to play golf anymore.”
It was like he had killed a dog in front of his parents. Or come out as gay. Not play golf? One might as easily decide to stop eating and drinking.
The father slammed the drink down on the counter, shattering the glass and lacerating his hand. He calmly took a paper towel and wiped away the blood, before getting another glass and pouring more brandy into it.
Bertram called him one day, close to the end of summer. “Wanna play?”
Vic, he thought he would never touch a club again. His callouses had already begun to peel and ache in that way that meant they would soon disappear. “Sure,” he said.
“Cool, where do you want to play? Can you drive yet?”
“I’m not allowed.”
“Weird. Okay, I’ll pick you up. See you in like an hour.”
Bertram drove a beat up green Honda coupe, somehow the perfect car for his laid back tendencies. Vic humped his clubs into the trunk and had to slam the passenger door to get it to close. Bertram was listening to a thrash metal track. “You like Municipal Waste?” he asked.
Vic’s father played nothing but reggae and classical. Outside of that and what was on the R&B radio station he was just now allowed to listen to, Vic knew nothing of music. “I’ve never heard of them.”
“Dude, check this shit out.” He cranked the volume.
All of Bertram’s trashy and low class accoutrement confused Vic. Bertram’s dad was a doctor, and his mother was an accountant. Why the beat-up car, the untucked shirts, the music? Why was he not upright and formal like Vic’s family, whose single income wasn’t nearly as much?
Riff raff. That was the father’s words for it. Nearly everyone in America was riff raff of some sort or the other, unlike him, a proper English gentleman. Vic nodded along to the screaming guitars. He kind of loved it.
“Where to?” asked Bertram.
“We can go to my club,” said Vic. Normally he would have asked his father’s permission, but not now.
Bertram pulled out a pack of Malboros and offered Vic one. “No? Okay.” He lit up and sped through a yellow light. “You smoke anything? You smoke weed?”
He’d gotten in the car with a stoner. Vic was well and truly fucked. He shook his head.
They signed out a cart at the club, and Bertram looked around. “I’ve only been here a few times. My dad doesn’t want to spring for something like this. He’s cheap.”
Fury roiled within Vic. This guy was public course trash. He didn’t have a dedicated training facility where he could hit an unlimited number of balls, but instead relied on the ranges and public courses of the municipal system, and yet he could wipe the floor with Vic ten times out of ten.
They approached the first tee. Bertram flipped a coin and called heads, the losing side. Vic teed up a slightly scuffed Titleist and let it rip. A beautiful high draw, right down the middle.
“Nice shot, man,” said Bertram. “Alright, let’s have some fun.”
This time the 16th hole didn’t welcome such a massive disparity in score. Bertram had produced a 40 at the turn, Vic a 45. It confirmed to Vic that Bertram played for fun sometimes, didn’t grind out every last little shot, but played for the simple joy of it.
They hadn’t talked much during the round. It was clear that Bertram was trying to make conversation, but Vic’s terse responses didn’t foster the give and take necessary for an exchange to happen. It wasn’t that Vic didn’t want to talk to him, but rather that he didn’t know how. None of his training had included this. At times it seemed like Bertram was ready to give up, but then he’d say something else and leave Vic to try and respond.
“I don’t want to go back to school,” Bertram said. “It’s driving me crazy, man. Where do you go to school?”
“No way. That’s why you’re so weird.”
Yes, Vic wanted to say. That’s why I don’t know music, or how to make friends, or how to talk to girls or what’s on television. That’s why I can’t hold a conversation and why I’ve been perpetually embarrassed all afternoon. That’s why all I know how to do is play golf, and I can’t even do that right.
“Shit, I’m sorry. I should not have said that out loud.”
“No, you shouldn’t have.”
Bertram nodded and got in the cart. They drove down to the dogleg, where the trees were thickest, and where Vic had accidentally driven his ball. Bertram got out and rummaged in his bag. “I’ll help you look for it. But first, let me make it up to you.”
He pulled out a thin white paper cylinder. Vic knew instinctively, without anyone telling him, what it was.
“Just take one hit with me.”
Vic looked deep into Bertram’s eyes, and suddenly he was aware of something he had never noticed before, a kind of pull in his midsection, and he realized he would do anything this cool, talented, handsome boy asked him to.
Bertram lit the joint and passed it. Vic got two and half in before he quit, which was deemed a more than adequate performance for a first-time smoker. They searched for Vic’s lost Titleist, beating back shrubbery, pushing aside low-hanging branches, all to no avail.
“I think it’s gone,” said Vic. His voice came out of him slow and thick. Suddenly the world started to warp subtly.
“You blasted that shit,” said Bertram. “How’d you hit it so far?”
“My father taught me.”
“Your dad’s an asshole. Shit, I shouldn’t have said that either.”
“No, you’re right. He’s an asshole.”
Bertram started giggling, apparently impressed with what he had gotten away with. And in the sun-dappled shadow of the hot summer afternoon, Vic couldn’t help but laugh too. They laughed together under the trees, and everything was easy and fun in a way Vic had never felt before.
The other boy got closer to him. Too close. Vic could count the hairs in his badly shaven upper lip. Bertram leaned forward and kissed Vic on the mouth.
At first Vic froze, unsure of what to make of it. Where had that come from? Had he misread the situation? Was this a date? Oh god, he thought, I let this boy ask me on a date.
Bertram pulled away. “Goddamit, I’m sorry. You’re just really cute.”
No one had ever called him cute before. There had been no interactions with girls his own age, no one to experiment with, not a single low-skilled groping session with a girl his own age. The idea that Vic was in any way a romantic being was a new one. Most of all it felt nice, to be called cute.
And it was that which made Vic kiss him back. It wasn’t a good kiss, but it was still a kiss. He pushed in softly with his tongue and felt Bertram push back with his. He tentatively pulled Vic in for an embrace, which Vic allowed. They stood there, liplocked teenagers, for longer than was probably advisable. Lust and dirt weed were enough to freeze time for them, to make the moment stretch forever like taffy.
There came the sound of someone yelling “Fore!” A golf ball came crashing through the trees and landed nearby them, startling Vic out of Bertram’s arms.
“We should probably get going,” Vic said.
“Yeah,” said Bertram. “Yeah. It was okay though, right?”
“Yes,” said Vic.
They called his ball lost and he quickly hit a new one from the middle of the fairway. They weren’t playing seriously, after all. All in all, Bertram finished with a score of 79, Vic with an 87. Not nearly so bad this time.
Vic bought Bertram a turkey club back at the clubhouse, or rather signed it to his father’s name. They both devoured their food: Vic had never been hungrier in his life, even though the pot was starting to wear off.
His head spun with the revelation of the kiss. What did this mean? Was he gay now? Had he always been gay? That wasn’t possible: Vic had definitely felt just under the normal teenage amount of horniness, and pretty much all of it directed towards women. But back there, he had liked kissing Bertram. It had felt right somehow, and Vic wanted to do it again.
Bertram sprayed them both down with air freshener before he drove Vic back home. They didn’t speak, just listened to the Municipal Waste CD. When they got back to Vic’s house Bertram popped it out of the stereo and put it back in its jewel case. “Here. You can borrow it.”
The cover featured melting zombies in an apocalyptic wasteland. His father would not approve. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, man. I can tell you like it.”
Their fingers touched as the album was passed from hand to hand. Something passed between them, psychic exchange and bonding all in one, a welcoming indoctrination. And in that moment, Vic could see an entire future: That he would one day attend a metal show, that he would smoke more pot than could ever be advisable, that he would drink like his father, scream like his father, that he would make disreputable friends, that Bertram would go to college on scholarship and meet a nice girl and marry her and play pro, that the father would holler for hours when he found out what his son was, that in time Vic would be happy.