With the whistle of mortar fire, the golf ball strafed their heads and landed with a thunk on the green. Sam ducked, along with the two players in his group. He stared at the foursome behind them, resisting the impulse to hurl the ball into the creek that trickled through Hidden Valley.
“Fore!” the asshole shouted belatedly and shrugged his shoulders. The first time, Sam had given the man the benefit of the doubt. The man might not realize how far the ball would go, or if the trees had hidden their group from view. Now Sam knew that the man was trying to hurry them along. He looked familiar, but that was impossible. Sam had picked this course for its cheap greens fees and its distance from anyone he knew.
He squared his shoulders, preparing to putt. He’d leave the man’s ball alone. He didn’t know the other two players – a grandfather and a teenage grandson – and he didn’t want to alarm them. They had met early that morning in the tee box, a pair looking for singles, and so far, Sam found them friendly, if quiet. He preferred quiet to buddy-buddy, to the men who shared their marital problems or tried to sell him car insurance or offered him a toke of marijuana in between holes.
The dry, hot Santa Ana winds rustled in the skinny palm trees that lined the edge of the course. Once Sam left this breezy oasis of green, the temperatures would go up twenty degrees. It was a week before Halloween, and the winds were at times vicious, overturning trucks and tumbleweeds on the freeway and fanning errant flames around Southern California.
As Sam focused on the dimpled ball before him, the image of his real estate agent popped into his head. Big teeth, big hair. “Number one seller in Rancho Cucamonga! Your home, your dreams!” Garrett Williams proclaimed from billboards, bus stops, and calendars that he sent to prospective clients. He sold Sam and his wife, Ani, their new home, on a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course. Faux Tuscan architecture, wall-to-wall carpeting, four bedrooms, an outdoor fireplace, and a wet bar in the living room. Garrett had also referred them to the local bank, where they took out a home equity loan to pay for their future, a good life: a nursing school for Ani while Sam taught taekwondo at his own studio.
Now, Ani was leaving Sam, their house had been foreclosed, and his business had failed.
Sam swung and missed. He squinted at the golfer behind them. He wasn’t Garrett. Garrett belonged to a country club in Chino Hills, the kind with a bar in the men’s locker room, dark-wood paneling, brass rails, and paintings of fox hunting in the English countryside. Garrett wouldn’t play at Hidden Valley, a public golf course located in the heart of the Inland Empire. East of downtown Los Angeles, with parts so desolate, the desert landscape resembled Tatooine. And beautiful too, Sam had to admit, with its steep mountains and brilliant blue skies when the smog lifted in winter.
Not-Garrett waved at Sam, pleasantly, though as if to say, hurry up.
With his right hand, Sam touched his holster. The gun was tucked into the hem of his pants, under his blue windbreaker. Sweat was pooling under the holster. He wasn’t sure why he had taken the gun on the golf course, why he slipped on the holster this morning before he left the house, but he’d grown used to its presence, reminding him to stand straight, to be a man worthy of a gun. A man worthy of Ani.
He wasn’t a gun nut, not like some of the men in the sheriff’s reserve, eager to get their department-issued Beretta 92FS, who gleefully sprayed paper targets on the practice range. He had joined the reserve to help with the bills. The bank loan paid for the taekwondo studio, for the renovations and the equipment, but the dojong didn’t have enough customers to cover the rent and utilities, let alone monthly household expenses. Sam had heard that his military background would help him get hired and the reserve had flexible hours. He liked the camaraderie of men and the sense of justice, of public service. And the badge – Ani had liked that, and the uniform too, at first.
Soon, Ani complained that the work was dangerous, and she never got to see him. She was pulling double shifts at the hospital where she worked as a medical technician. She didn’t like a gun in the house, though Sam protested that he was an excellent shot. “I could dot an “i” on a highway sign.”
After holing out, Sam walked to his cart. The red flag perched beside the hole snapped in the scorching wind.
“You laddies need anything?” the cart girl asked after she rolled up to Sam and the two players with whom he’d been paired. “Cart girl” was a charitable term. She had the stout body, gray curly hair, and the reassuring yet domineering air of a junior high gym teacher.
Not like Ani, who was working weekends as a cart girl at the Los Serranos Golf Club when they met six years ago. He fell hard for her curly brown hair gathered into a cheerleader’s high ponytail, the tiny mole above her lip, and the way she teased him about his powerful but graceless swing.
She was the only daughter in a large Armenian family. Her five older brothers taught her how to play golf, to drive a stick shift, and keep up in shit-giving. At first, her parents didn’t trust Sam; they wanted her to date someone from church, then Ani told them that Sam was Serbian and that Serbians and Armenians had both been screwed by the Turks. And didn’t that count for something?
Serbian looks dominated in Sam – that noble nose, that caveman’s brow – and most people couldn’t tell his mother was half-Chinese but for the slight tilt of his eyes he’d inherited. Sam loved the big rambunctious dinners held by Ani’s parents: the huge platters of lamb and pilaf and borek. Urged to eat, eat, eat, a sign of how her family looked out for each other, even if that sometimes meant meddling and unwanted advice.
One evening, Ani’s nephew rammed into her legs, and she cuddled him, stroking the boy’s curls.
“Do you want another cousin?” Sam asked the toddler.
Ani glared at him, and he went silent, but it was too late, for her mother had heard it and launched into a plea for grand-children. Ani didn’t argue with her mother then, but Sam knew she was furious by the tight set of her shoulders. She didn’t want her mother’s life, forever sacrificing, in the kitchen, her worth dependent on her children. In the car ride home, Ani said, “I wish you could stand by me.”
Now Sam looked down the fairway. The course marshal, a ruddy-cheeked, round-faced man in the aviator sunglasses was nowhere to be found. Not-Garrett climbed onto the rise and Sam decided to make him wait a few minutes longer. He bought a round of drinks: a beer for the grandfather, Juan, and a Coke for Tony, the grandson. Juan nodded in thanks, his movements small and precise, nothing wasted. Tony dropped the soda, lunging forward to keep the can from rolling down the slope. He was clumsy, not yet grown into his body.
Sam hadn’t known either of his grandfathers and probably would never have a grandson. He had only a few memories of his Serbian father, with his beaked nose, bushy eyebrows, and fairytale giant height. At the annual blessing of the house, in celebration of his family’s patron saint day, a bearded priest in velvet robes had chanted prayers. His father left when Sam was six, and though his mother cut off ties to the Radulovich family, Sam never lost the longing for that which made him different. On his own, he sampled slivovitz, a harsh plum brandy, read up on the war in Yugoslavia, and found Serbian curse words online. His favorite was “Yebachu ti sveca” or “I’ll fuck your saint.” When Sam repeated those curses, he felt an ancient power – almost medieval, with clanking armor and skulls on spikes – that he couldn’t otherwise summon out of his suburban existence.
Sam clinked cans with Juan and Tony, lanky replicas across generations, down to the same protruding ears. Serious and cautious, they both squatted for a minute or longer to read the slope of the green.
“Much obliged.” Juan adjusted his baseball cap on his bushy silver hair.
“Thanks again.” Tony raised his can of soda, toasting Sam.
His genes living on, a chance to be the father that he never had – sure, Sam had considered all those reasons why to have children, but what had appealed to Sam most was the fantasy of their family, them together against the world. Sam got into the cart. The group ahead – two Asian couples, probably Koreans, the husbands in polo shirts, their wives in huge visors, shielding their faces like welder’s masks, were betting on each stroke, exchanging fistfuls of dollars, which slowed down the game for everyone who followed. They should keep a running tally and pay out at the end of the round, but then, they wouldn’t have the repeated joy of winning their small stakes.
He drove to the next hole, the wheels crunching on the gravel path. He should call his mother, and tell her what had happened between him and Ani. When he was growing up, his mother had worked two waitressing jobs which kept them fed and housed, but left time for little else. He never stopped feeling abandoned, once he confided to Ani.
“You’re one of us now.” She folded her sinewy arms around him, her grip comforting and confining like a swaddling blanket.
The idea for the practical joke had come to him after he browsed through an old-fashioned candy shop stocked with salt-water taffy, licorice, and other curiosities. He found an unopened packet of pills in the medicine cabinet, slit off the foil backing with an x-Acto knife, dropped in the pale yellow candies – remarkable, how close the resemblance – and glued back the foil. He smoothed the edges with his forefinger. Perfect.
Ani didn’t notice the fake pills on the first day or the next, but on the third, feeling dizzy and hot, she realized what he had done. She thrust the pack into his face at breakfast.
“Gotcha!” He realized too late how much he had wronged her. And how much she had wronged him, by denying him a family.
She hurled the pack, which slid across the table and onto the floor. “You never listen. I don’t want kids.”
You don’t want kids with me, he had been too afraid to say, and the unspoken accusation crushed what was left between them.
Sam parked the cart. Ani had told him to keep out of the house while she packed. He said he could help; he could fix breakfast, but she sighed over the phone, meaning “Please, no.” She didn’t want to try counseling, and she didn’t want to forgive him. He suspected that she’d already been on the verge of leaving him. She wasn’t one to hash out a decision endlessly; once she made up her mind, she moved on. He pictured her filling her green suitcase with the rest of her clothes, cardboard boxes with her cookware, and trash bags with old magazines, half empty shampoo bottles, that she would tie and stack beside the garbage can. She’d already given him back the wedding ring, closing his fingers around it for safe keeping.
A swift getaway, a clean break: independent, she’d kept a separate checking account and her last name after marriage. She would pack thoroughly and quickly. No one wanted to linger at Palm Estates, where the developer went bankrupt before finishing the project, leaving behind a hole in the ground for the swimming pool and metal posts but no security gate. Foreclosure signs hung in front of a quarter of the houses.
Lately, Santa Ana had kicked up dust from the un-landscaped dirt, turning Sam’s eyes red and his throat raw. Fifteen miles south, a housing tract much like his own was on fire, sending up clouds on the horizon. Last night the television news broadcast a scarred black hillside, alight with red-gold flames, terrible but beautiful.
Suddenly Sam realized he should leave to help Ani; she couldn’t say it, but that was what she wanted. This gesture would change her mind. He backed up the cart, which beeped with a silly shriek, and the urge left as quickly as it had arrived. Sam sagged into his seat. She didn’t want to see him. Not-Garrett and his gang stood with their arms folded across their chest, glowering beneath their sunglasses, trying to hurry them along. Sam bristled. He’d take as long as he needed.
“What’s their rush?” Juan grumbled and parked beside him, adding that he recognized the players. They’d tailgated him off the freeway this morning and tried to race around his truck to nab a spot in the parking lot.
“We got there first.” Tony grinned.
A doe and two perfect fawns walked out of the oak trees, from the nature preserve abutting the course. The deer nibbled the grass, their heads bobbing in the sunlight, their backs speckled white, and their black noses glistening. Their bodies twitched, and their tails flicked at unseen fleas. The thwack of clubs and the distant hum of traffic fell away, leaving Sam alone with the deer, who looked up at him, unafraid and trusting, and continued eating.
A flash went off, and the deer bolted into the woods. “I think the picture’s blurry,” Tony said, riveted by his camera. He wiped the smudged screen with the hem of his tee shirt and showed the picture to his grandfather. “We saw them last month.” Tony stuffed the camera into the pocket of his shorts.
“Those guys” – Juan jerked his thumb behind him, at Not-Garrett – “miss stuff like this.”
Sam realized that he had been holding his breath. He exhaled. He wished he could have shared this moment with Ani. He lightly touched his gun again, to check if it was secure. He slid out of the cart and shouldered his bag.
After he had hit his shot, he wanted the ball to stay aloft forever, for that was when the impossible seemed possible: a 160-yard hole-in-one, a prosperous business, a happy wife. The ball sailed up, up, up, streaking across the hazy blue sky, almost there – and into a sand-trap, disappearing like a light winked out, like lost hope.
Tony teed up, and his ball landed on the green. He pumped his fist, so full of youthful exuberance that Sam sank deeper into his misery.
Sam drove to the trap and spent the next few minutes trying to dig out the ball. He planted his feet and swung shallow, scooped sand along with the ball, but no matter what he did, it rolled down to the lowest point of the trap – what felt like the lowest point of Hidden Valley, and the lowest point of his life.
He peeked out of the trap to see Juan and Tony parked on the green. While they waited, Tony studied a thick textbook, frequently highlighting, while his grandfather bent his head over the book, reading along. Sam gritted his teeth. He would not let the ball defeat him.
Sam mouthed a taekwondo chant to clear the buzzing in his head. With a buddy, he’d begun training while stationed in South Korea, something else to do besides going to bars, shopping for knock-offs, or eating at the American fast-food restaurants around Yongsan base. Something that marked the time he spent there as any different than if he had never left Southern California, even if Korean wasn’t quite Chinese. He had impressed his instructor – a tiny, tidy man who marveled at Sam’s speed despite his size. The smell of the red vinyl mats, the ritual bow as Sam entered and left the dojong, the power, and control he felt going through the forms – all this, he loved.
He continued training during his various deployments to Okinawa and Turkey and earned his black belt. After his discharge and graduating from college, Sam took a job selling copy machines. Because of his time in the service, he was older than the other salesmen, and always a beat behind their jokes, unfamiliar with their references to music and movies. After his co-workers had invited him to the driving range, Sam accepted, grateful for something to talk about.
He swung again, but the ball failed to clear the trap. Sam cursed, emptying himself into the expletives, his vision gone hazy. When he blinked, he found the club buried deep into the sand. With both hands, he pulled it out. His face was burning, and he knew that Not-Garrett and his gang must be laughing at him. He fetched the ball and climbed out.
After the ninth hole, Sam, Tony, and Juan stopped for hot dogs at the club house. They had a few minutes. The Korean group ahead was fast on the fairways, but slow on the green. It was eleven-thirty, and Ani would almost be done packing because she didn’t have much to move.
Sam wolfed down the hot dog, the relish tangy on his tongue. His back was sore, his calves aching, and sweat soaked his visor, but Sam felt something like happiness for the first time that day. Although the sand trap had nearly swallowed him whole, golf offered redemption with every shot. Golf’s appeal: it’s possibilities. If not this shot, the next. If not this hole, the next. If not this round, the next.
At the thirteenth hole, the cart girl rolled up and handed them gin-and-tonics in red plastic cups, and soda for Tony. “The gentlemen playing behind you sent these drinks.” Her expression calm, almost bored, as if she did such things every day.
“I’ll be damned.” Juan chuckled, a smile spreading across his face.
Not-Garrett gave him a thumbs-up. Sam sniffed the drink, sweet and herbal, cut through with the bright smell of the lime wedge.
“I mixed them fresh,” the cart girl said. “With Tanqueray.”
Perhaps this drink was a peace offering, and Sam raised his cup in thanks. The drink was strong, just a splash of tonic. A breeze arrived, carrying the smell of cut grass and smoke from distant wildfires. They were at the crest of a hill, a viewpoint from which they could see the course spreading below them.
He’d been to Hidden Valley once before, on a sting operation with the sheriff’s department. Organizers of a private tournament erected “hospitality tents” around the course, and inside, prostitutes offered a menu of services. Sam, with the other officers, dressed in camouflage and hid in the brush, spying with binoculars before busting the johns. That operation had earned Hidden Valley the unfortunate nickname “Hooker Valley.” A majestic course, and Sam had always meant to come back with Ani. Patient and determined, she was a better golfer than Sam. She hit the ball straight, over and over, until she reached the hole.
Sam tipped the cart girl five dollars.
“I’m supposed to tell you that he’ll buy you another round if you let them play through.” The cart girl bit her lip and fiddled with the lid of the cooler.
Sam dumped the rest of his drink onto the grass and flipped off Not-Garrett. Tony and Juan did the same, and their solidarity lifted the heaviness in Sam’s chest. He knew he could count on them, if only for today, if only for this round, and it gave him more hope than he’d had in months.
“You’d think they hated each other, the way they’re trying to get through the course as fast as possible.” Juan squeezed his grandson’s shoulder.
The fusillade began after that, as Not-Garrett and his gang rained down their balls. Sam and his crew took their own revenge, hurling the balls off the course. Not-Garrett seemed to have an endless supply, a golf bag full of balls.
“Christ,” Juan said after a ball twanged against the roof of his cart. He said he was going back to the clubhouse to report the rogue group.
“Don’t,” Sam said.
Juan sized Sam up.
If Sam told him what he wanted to say – that doing so would amount to defeat, a defeat that might crush him utterly – he would sound ridiculous.
“They might retaliate if they get kicked off.” Sam summoned an eloquence that he didn’t know he had, that he wished he might have used to persuade Ani to stay. “They might come after us in the parking lot. Slash our tires. Threaten us with their golf clubs. I’ve seen that kind of thing, I’ve seen worse, while out on patrol.”
At the beginning of the round, when they were exchanging their brief histories, Sam let slip that he was a sheriff, without disclosing that he was actually in reserve.
Juan’s expression softened, and he seemed to appreciate the warning. “You know best, I suppose. We only have three holes left.”
“Maybe,” he added. “They should let the group pass?”
“No,” Sam said. “They’ll think they can do this every time they play. They’ll keep doing it if we don’t take a stand.”
They kept playing, although Tony seemed shaken, missing his strokes and jumping out of his seat when balls whizzed by. He reminded Sam of himself as a teenager: big and shy, not quite understanding how he and his body had become so imposing. A good kid, the kind Sam liked to teach at the dojong. When he opened his studio, Sam wanted to help his students conquer their fear. About a dozen remained. Debbie, a freckled college girl, who wanted to protect herself against rapists, Josh and Jack, red-headed eight-year-old twins who loved Japanese anime, fortune cookies, and all things Oriental, Leroy, a financial planner. Sometimes he thought his students could be enough, stand-ins for the children Ani didn’t want.
The economy tanked, people lost their jobs and their homes, and cut back on their visits to hair salons, to restaurants, to dentists, and to the dojong. When the adjacent donut shop and the Chinese takeout joint went out of business, Sam knew that he would too. He hadn’t acted quickly enough, hadn’t acted at all. He should have begged the landlord for a break on the rent, found more students. So many ideas came to him too late. That was when he pressured Ani to have kids, and when he swapped out her birth control pills.
Sam stretched, raising his arms above his head and bending at the waist to touch his toes. The Koreans paused on the green, passing around bags of snacks. The men didn’t nuzzle their wives, no kisses or hugs, but Sam could tell who belonged to whom. The elegant woman in tan plaid passed a napkin to her husband, a stout sausage of a man. The shorter couple had flashy clothing, orange and pink like a tropical drink. Both couples had been married for years, Sam suspected, and would be for many more.
On the seventeenth hole, he hit a glorious birdie that sailed seventy-yards, playing better now than he had all day. Getting the better of Not-Garrett and his pals had improved his game. When Sam drove up in his cart, Juan clapped him on the back, and Tony asked for pointers.
Sam would survive without Ani. He would have to. Maybe he would ask Juan for his phone number after the round, and play weekday mornings or at twilight when the rates were cheaper. He decided he would offer Tony free lessons, among the last he would teach before he shut down the dojong.
“Fore!” Not-Garrett yelled.
The ball whizzed by and clocked Tony in the head, and the teenager tumbled to the ground. He made a strange, strangled sound and went still. The wind picked up again, the palm fronds thrashing and glistening in the harsh white light.
Juan rushed over to his grandson. “Call 911! Call the police! Please!” He hooked his hands under Tony’s armpits and dragged him across the green. Juan staggered, his knees buckling under the weight. Sam grabbed Tony’s splayed legs, trying to keep them together. The boy’s legs were damp and unwieldy, and the black hair bristly. Sam’s fingers slipped, and he tightened his grip around the ankles. Together they carried Tony, his backside sagging against the grass, and with a one-two-three, heaved the teenager onto the passenger seat. Sam held Tony up while Juan leaped into the driver’s seat and put an arm around his grandson to hold him up. Sam whipped off his windbreaker and laid it across Tony, whose breathing was fast, faint, and shallow.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said, the words familiar and choking.
Juan did not reply. He floored the cart toward the clubhouse and disappeared when the path dipped down the hill.
Sam clenched his hands, blood roaring in his ears, his chest close to bursting. He didn’t know how many minutes had passed when Not-Garrett arrived in his cart.
“Things got out of hand,” Not-Garrett said.
Things got out of hand when Not-Garrett hit them on purpose. When Sam did not stop him. Now Tony was hurt, maybe dead.
“We didn’t mean any harm.” Not-Garrett stepped out of the cart. He was shorter than Sam imagined him, a garden gnome in tasseled golf shoes. “Let’s go back to the clubhouse.”
“You’re under arrest.” Sam flashed his sheriff’s badge. He almost dropped it, his fingers fumbling with the leather case.
“We’re both at fault.” Not-Garrett pulled out his wallet. “It’s the poor kid who got in the way. We can settle this right now.” He held out a wad of one-hundred dollar bills to Sam. His nails were buffed to a high gloss and his fingers fleshy and pink as piglets crowding their mother’s teat.
As if money would solve everything. It did most things. Sam tried to draw his gun. The gesture was awkward, as though someone had pinned his arm behind his back, and then the gun slid smoothly out of the holster. He trained the gun on Not-Garrett. Sam had hit the bull’s-eye many times on practice ranges, but he had never aimed a gun at someone. How strange and alien the gun seemed in his hand. How tender and exposed the sunburned flesh of Not-Garrett’s neck.
“Holy shit!” Not-Garrett screamed and dove into his cart. He hit the accelerator, hunching his body and tucking his head. The cart veered off the path and into the green.
Sam released the safety, wheeled around, and aimed at Not-Garrett’s ball, flecked with blood. In the distance, he heard sirens and people shouting. He was overcome with that same feeling of possibility, of perfection as when he watched his golf ball arcing across the sky. If he made this shot, then Ani would take him back, his dojong would be saved, and Tony healed. He realized his folly in the next instant – before the turf erupted, before the ball bounced, before the course marshals tackled him – and wished, in that split-second, that he could take back the mistakes that led to this moment.
Like a bullet, some things just couldn’t be stopped.