Sam Snopes stood in the rough, arms crossed high over his chest like an irate toddler, unmoving, eyes blazing, silent. Dan, his caddy, stood some yards distant, watching, also silent (though with the same concern and unyielding loyalty of a fat and terrified beagle, which Dan very much resembled).
They were on the eighteenth hole of the Pacific Azalea course, on the final day of the U.S. Open, and they had been standing in the rough for twenty minutes. Standing there staring at the ball.
It sat on the fine mown fairway like a little moon from a disassembled galaxy. Most of the crowd had trekked off to the club in search of the remaining pieces, or other games still in some form of progress. What few remained watched Sam Snopes with a quiet desperation, a manic, obsessive desire to see the golf ball disappear into its waiting hole. Sam, Dan noted, looked no nearer to appeasing them than he’d been twenty-one minutes ago.
“Dan,” said Sam.
Dan leapt out of his standing crouch and stumbled on his popping knees. He loped to the man, clubs clattering against his body, and stopped just short of his elbow.
Taking a long sniff of a passing, grassy breeze, Sam grunted. “How big you think this place is?”
Dan hesitated before replying. “About four yards,” he said. “Do you want the putter?”
“The golf course, Dan. It’s got to be two-hundred acres.”
Dan tried desperately to nod under the weight of his confusion. “Yes,” he said. “I dunno. That seems pretty big. Maybe a hundred?”
“A hundred,” Sam repeated, the words carving out of him like an avalanche defecating down the side of a mountain. “Jesus, how much water does it take to keep a hundred acres green?”
“Well, it’s not all green,” said Dan. “There was that sand trap off the eleventh tee-”
“All that water,” Sam continued. “Where’d it come from?”
Dan felt very strongly that some old, primeval force was standing just behind him waiting to squash him into the grass. If this was not a practical joke of Biblical proportions, then Sam may just have lost his mind. Yet the minds of professional golfers were inscrutable, and Dan had no grander calling in this life than professional caddy. So he chose his words carefully.
“Northern California, I believe, Mr. Snopes. Do you know that you are twelve under par? Even if you make a bogey on this one you’re set for the tournament.” He tried a nervous smile, and when Sam continued to ignore him he tried a more nervous laugh.
Sam’s gaze wandered over Dan’s face with the mute sympathy of a lion watching a gazelle trip over its shoelaces.
“What have we been doing all day?” said Sam. “When you really think about it, hundreds of acres, just a few people allowed on it to knock around a pale little ball made of rubber and balsata. What happened today in the Middle East?”
“Oh,” said Dan, the word dropping into the very depths of him, “I guess-”
“Or, I don’t know, someplace where they don’t do golf. You know, like Africa, or Idaho. What’s going on there? Couldn’t we give them all this fairway?”
Dan swallowed and gently pulled the putter out of his bag. “If you can sink it in two, Mr. Snopes, you’d take the trophy for sure. Peterson was under ten last time I checked.”
“What used to be here?” said Sam. “Wasn’t this a swamp or something? Or marshland? Are they the same thing, Dan?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Snopes.”
Sam huddled down on his haunches and Dan followed, his knees cracking, putter clutched tightly in his fists. Sam ran his fingers through the rough and nodded slowly. “Yes, you feel that?” He pulled the putter out of Dan’s grasp and tossed it into the fairway. It landed beside the flagman, who stared out over the green with the unflagging patience of a sunburned martyr.
Sam guided Dan’s hands into the rough. “You know, I don’t think this grass belongs here. California just grows cactuses, right?”
“I don’t know about plants, Mr. Snopes.”
“Well you should!” said Sam, his voice full of wonder. “Did you know they feed us oxygen? My God. All of this here, I can’t believe I never noticed it before. This is all…this is all insane.”
“No,” said Dan, trying to keep the knot from claiming his throat. “No, Mr. Snopes, that’s not true.”
“No, Dan, it must be true!” said Sam, aghast. “Why are we still here? On this changeless, emerald sea? How did we allow ourselves to be so blinded by trophies when this very concept is so foreign to the natural congress of nature?”
Dan began pulling clubs from his bag in desperation, ignoring the tears that poured from his eyes. “Sir, please let me advise you. There are so many kinds of – look, here’s your fifty-six wedge. You used it to knock it out of the rough on the first tee. And then, oh, the hybrid – isn’t it beautiful, with a glossy finish?”
Sam slapped the club from Dan’s hand. He took him roughly by the Polo lapels. “You are my Starbuck, Dan, and we have been chasing our own pale destruction. We are not meant to be here. None of this, don’t you see? None of this makes any sense!”
Dan wept in Sam’s tan arms. “You have a beautiful pair of irons, Mr. Snopes! Please hit the ball!”
“Never!” spat Sam. “I will never hit that ball again! I forfeit!”
“No!” wailed Dan.
“Yes!” said Sam. “Yes, we are going home, Dan, with our heads held high.”
“I don’t want to go!” said Dan. “I like it here! I like the green! I like the fairway and the double dogleg!”
“We are infidels on holy land,” screamed Sam, “perverting common decency with this abominable ruin of a pastime and profession.”
“It’s just a game!” screamed Dan. He clutched at his head as the pounding in his temples increased. “Just hit the ball!”
Sam shook Dan as hard as he could until the final clubs rattled out of the bag and the snot severed from Dan’s nostrils in wet ropes. And they wailed together, man and caddy, like thunder sundering the heavens.
Meanwhile the flagman stood watch over another temperate day in Southern California.