An odd scent was in the air and Charlie MacLeod wondered where it might be coming from. From off the ocean it rode the wind and swept over him, faintly medicinal but pleasing, and he inhaled deeply to fill his lungs. Towering trees with long strips of peeling bark lined a narrow two-lane street and hugged the edges of a dirt path worn into the overgrown grass. Long, straggling limbs drooped low so that Charlie had to brush them out of his way. He'd been traveling for days now, constantly on the move—a bus, two trains, then another bus. He'd walked for hours this morning, his belongings in an old canvas bag slung over his shoulder. He trudged up one last steep hill, came to the end of the path and stopped to catch his breath.
A dirt road split off into the forest of trees, and at the intersection stood a waist-high marker made of rough, uncut stone. Exhausted, he removed his old wool cap to cool his head, leaned against the stone and dropped his bag at his feet. He rubbed the week's worth of stubble on his face, a beard grayed by the passing of time and the pain of his memories. Dread that had been working on him since the moment he awoke finally swept over him and seized his body. His heart pounded into his throat as he tried to stop the utterance of a name, but failed as miserably as ever.
"Helen," he whispered, and realized he'd traveled thousands of miles for nothing. "Christ," he said, as tears filled his eyes and spilled down his face. His legs weakened and he slid down to his haunches, the rough stone scraping his back. His head throbbed, blotches of light bordered his vision, and his hands and feet tingled as though a thousand needles had penetrated his skin. He covered his face with his hands and waited for his anxiety to pass.
Past episodes had taken hours—the worst ones, days—to subside. He spent hours shaking, wandering through his house late into the night until, finally exhausted, he fell into bed and passed out. When he finally awoke it was impossible to get up. The only time he felt good was at work. He labored in a foundry shoveling sand and grinding metal, and though he was slight, he was strong. Charlie could work for hours. But when the whistle blew and the men dispersed he would sink again. Even as he put the key into the door of his new house, the panic would return.
The wind rocked him and he came to; how long he'd been out he didn't know. His neck and face were dry. He pulled a clean towel from his bag and rubbed his hair, then draped it over his shoulder. He stood tentatively and circled the marker. A bronze plaque, dark and weather-worn with simple, bold lettering, stated what was stretched out beyond him over acres of green land. His spirits lightened. Amused but not quite believing, Charlie read the plaque again, then turned around to find himself before a wall of giant trees and dense foliage.
Maybe the place is closed, he thought, or maybe they just don't want anybody to know about it.
A horn startled him as an old Chevy carrying four grown men slowed behind him. From the front passenger side, a bony-faced man eyed Charlie, then took a drag on his cigarette, and the sun-bleached blue car, engine tapping, brakes squealing, turned and spun up the dirt road.
Inside the tree line, smooth blacktop stretched out before him. The foliage on either side formed a tunnel blocking out the sun and wind, and though it was colder here, the quiet was welcome. So he kept walking. Shortly the road widened into a parking lot, where the sun cast bright light over a small Tudor building at the far end. It looked warmer there, and Charlie picked up his pace. Parked alongside a small prefabricated aluminum building were tractors and riding mowers. Dark-haired, dark-skinned men with white-collared shirts, floppy hats and rubber boots sat at a picnic table drinking coffee on their mid-morning break.
"You here to loop?" someone asked, and the question turned Charlie around. A short, chubby, gray-haired, red-faced man dressed in worn khakis, a blue polo shirt and an argyle sweater was jiggling a considerable key ring, trying to find the one that opened the trunk of his Chevy. "Forgot something," he said, and pushed his wire-rimmed glasses closer to his face. "Aha!" he said, holding up the key. He stuck out his hand. "Al Hrabovsky. I'm the caddy master around here."
"Loop?" A smile sprung to Charlie's face.
"Yeah, loop. What? You're not a caddy?" Al pulled a pair of old tennis shoes from the trunk and held them up. "One of the guys needs them." He spoke quickly, nervously. "Look, if you're here for the grounds crew you'll have to talk to José over there. But they're mostly Mexicans. And the pay, well, it's shit."
"No, I just hadn't heard the word for such a long time. Loop."
"I saw you out there with the towel on your shoulder."
"Yeah, right, the towel," Charlie said, trying to catch up to the conversation, lost in memories of yellow flags dotting deep green Pennsylvania hillsides. His left hand slowly rubbed his right elbow.
"You all right?" Al asked, and Charlie looked up. "You hurt your arm?"
Charlie let his arm fall. "You saw me out front," he said.
"We passed right by you. I thought you were a caddy."
"I am, I mean, I did when I was a kid."
"Oh," Al said, and slammed the trunk shut. "I'm sorry, but you got to know what you're doing. I only have twenty or so caddies. They're all older and for the most part, when they're sober, they know what they're doing. I'm always looking for another good one, though."
Charlie looked down at himself. He'd been wearing the same clothes for three days. His hair was too long. He couldn't remember if he'd ever looked so bad. "I've been on the road," he said softly.
"You look fine," Al said, pointing at Charlie's clothes. "I don't care how you look and neither do the members. You should see some of these guys. We're not hung up on all that stuff. But you got to know what you're doing."
"I know what I'm doing," Charlie said with sudden certainty. "If I know anything, I know this." He pointed at the clubhouse and grounds around him.
"You got to know your yardages, clubs—"
"Reading greens, keep 'em clean. Flat yardage, playing yardage. Wind, hills, speak when spoken to."
"Yeah," Al said.
"Anybody can pick up a bag. That ain't caddying."
Al shook his head. "No, it isn't."
Charlie sighed heavily. "To tell you the truth, I wasn't really looking for work," he said, loving what he saw and feeling calmer than he had in recent memory. "But I'd like to."
The two started walking. "How'd you hear about this place?" Al asked.
"I didn't," Charlie answered. "I stopped and leaned on the marker out there. I was tired. Your car came by."
Al laughed. "All right, now I know you're a caddy. I think that's how we all got here. By accident." They headed toward the clubhouse. "You play?" Charlie shrugged and Al raised a hand. "Don't worry. We got a caddy shack full of secrets. You're safe here."
As they walked toward the clubhouse, Al explained, "You can wear anything except shorts."
"Who lets their caddies wear shorts?" Charlie asked.
"Well, there's been a trend lately but this membership isn't much into trends. They like things the way they are. You'll find that out."
A few steps past the clubhouse Charlie passed into sunshine and took in the huge expanse of green land opening up before him. It was not like the green of home but more washed-out, the terrain flattening and fading endlessly into the horizon. The hazy sun muted the edges of the landscape. Gentle hills rolled away from him, more of the same kind of trees interspersed with giant stately pines separated the fairways. Clouds hovered high above, and below them a wall of fog looked as solid as the ground beneath his feet.
"That's the ocean, that way?" he asked, taking a deep breath.
"Yep. That's number one," Al said, pointing to a small, well-clipped tee box.
"Beautiful," Charlie said.
The course followed the lay of the land, as if the builders had laid it gently, not wanting to disturb a thing. "No flowers," Charlie said.
"No tennis courts," Charlie said.
"How many members?"
A small building sat off to the right. It had two doors. Al pointed at the near door. "Pro shop." Then he pointed to the far door. "Caddy shack. That's where you go. Don't get the two confused."
Before a tall hedge, a few of the men sprawled on a wooden bench like they were waiting for a bus.
"Have a seat," Al said.
Charlie felt stuck. There was something odd, indefinite, and preposterous about Al's request. He wanted to ask, "For how long?" or "What for?" But just as he was about to speak, he recalled his first caddy master, old and craggy, a crumpled, sweat-ringed ball cap on his head, a cigarette burning between his lips, mouthing the first words Charlie ever heard on a golf course: "Boy, you're a caddy, a mule. Speak when spoken to."
Assaulted by questions all day long—from members, from staff—the last thing a caddy master wants to hear is another question he can't answer. It's what he hates most of all about his job, the caddies asking when they'll work, if they'll work, the members asking how long it will be before they can tee off. When? How long? Over and over again. And the truth is, if it ain't right away the caddy master doesn't know. He may act like he does, and he might--and often does--lie, but the fact is he doesn't know. At this golf course, it's a wait-and-see deal. There are no tee-times here. It's first-come, first-play. If Mr. So-and-So shows up with the rest of his foursome in front of the caddy master, then they'll play first and everyone else is going to have to wait. The caddy master might have some idea but, until the players are standing in front of him, he doesn't really know shit. People call and say they're coming, then don't. Or they show up out of nowhere wanting to know when they could get off.
There are busy times and slow times, and no one can predict the amount of play. A caddy has to wait and see, learn how to pass time, without going any crazier than he already is. That's the trade-off for being able to leave anytime and for as long as you want. And as far as the caddy master's concerned, you don't ever have to come back. Don't let the door hit you in the ass. And nobody can up and leave faster than a caddy does.
The men drifted easily between the bench and inside the shack. They read newspapers, ate fast food and sipped coffee, their mood at this mid-morning hour quiet and tranquil. No fewer than three chessboards were set on the bench between them. As Charlie approached, they moved quietly apart to make room for him. Welcoming the much-needed rest, he sat down and leaned back, blending in, anonymous, safe. His worry slowly began to peel away, like the strips of bark from the giant trees, and for the first time in a long while he imagined that someday he might just leave it behind for good.Chapter 2
The sun peeked out, then hid behind the incoming fog as caddies and players marched by in a sparse parade from the ninth green to the tenth tee and off the back nine.
A twosome came trudging down eighteen with their caddy—older men, stooped, gray and wind-burned, their age having betrayed them.
Leaning forward into the prevailing wind, they were bundled in wool pants and sweaters to shield themselves from the elements, but it was far too late; their faces and hands were a road map of wrinkles, the wind and the sun having taken their toll.
Striding steadily before them with a large leather bag on each shoulder was a tall, broad man in khakis, an old gray sweatshirt and a red baseball cap. Well ahead of his players, he dropped the bags greenside and waited patiently as the two old men struggled up to their balls. The first took two shots to get out of a sand trap, cursed, then three-putted; the other merely three-putted, shrugging his shoulders as if he'd expected to all along. They laid their putters against their bags and huffed and puffed up the short, steep hill to the clubhouse as their caddy raked the trap smooth, replaced the flagstick, shouldered his bags and in a few quick strides caught up to and passed his players.
That's how it's done, Charlie thought.
The caddy stood his bags by the pro shop and the men paid him. "Thank you, Henry," one said, and patted him on the back. "Same time, tomorrow. Good day."
Henry nodded, took a spot next to Charlie and pulled a tattered paperback from his back pocket and red-framed half-glasses from his shirt pocket.
"You all done, professor?" Al asked from the pro-shop door.
"Yes," Henry said quietly.
Al tapped the face of his watch and glanced at Charlie. "Three hours. That's movin' 'em," he said.
Unaware of the compliment, Henry thumbed a page or two, found his spot and held it with a finger. Sensing Charlie, he greeted him with a bashful nod, sighed contentedly, and began to read.
An hour passed, then another. Noon approached and cars began to roll in, each caddy knowing every car and the member who drove it. A trunk popped open and a thin, baby-faced kid in his twenties with shaggy brown hair and freckles jumped up and ran to it. His sudden movement sent a ripple of head-shaking and snickers down the bench, but that had no effect on him. He retrieved the bag, set it between the first and tenth tees, quickly returned to his spot on the bench and, like a beagle eyeing a rabbit, waited for the next car.
"Stop pressin', Billy," someone said from behind a newspaper. "It's fuckin' embarrassing."
"Fuck you, Figgs," he replied.
"Starin' at the parking lot don't make 'em come down the road."
"Some of us don't have steadies like you."
Jimmy Figgs folded the paper exposing his narrow, mean face. "You been here since you were a kid. You don't have steadies, you're a duck."
"Leave that boy alone," someone mumbled.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Back Nine by Billy Mott. Copyright © 2007 by Billy Mott. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.