Somewhere in the midland plains of Georgia, Bermuda grass fairways bake in the sun near the banks of the Oconee River. In the deep rough, Spanish moss drapes the limbs of sweetgums and scrambles through branches of massive live oaks, and in amber sand traps arrowheads and fossils sometimes explode out with the spray from a wedge. Closer to the river, a badly hit ball might sink into the swamp, a place where light fades and all turns to gray: gray moss swagging gray trees, gray mud lurking beneath, gray light filtering through hidden black branches.
One January day, an unseasonable balmy breeze coasted across the fairways, stirring the low-hanging moss, ruffling the mossy hair of Peggy June Elwood. After the fourth hole, she glanced over at the scorecard in her husband’s hand. It was hard to believe she was two strokes ahead of Joe.
How had that happened?
For thirty years she’d muffed drives on purpose, she’d shanked into the lagoon. Anything to keep the peace, to keep Joe happy. Maybe on the next hole she’d hit into the trap.
She took off her hat, and the breeze and sun on her head felt good. The rataplan of a woodpecker echoed from somewhere behind her. She listened for a moment, adjusted her glasses, and glanced toward the pines that divided the number five fairway from the number eight. She spotted the woodpecker — a flicker, and smiled. It was hard to believe that yesterday they’d had frost.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day, Joe?”
“Mmph.” Joe bent his flushed face over the scorecard. Joe, at fifty-six, was still a handsome man, though the beginnings of a double chin cushioned his face and the taut belly of his football years had burgeoned along with his real-estate business. Peggy June watched as Joe wrote the number down. Not many women had a husband as successful as Joe.
He handed her the card. “Wha’d you get?
“Six,” she said, and penciled in the number. She stopped short and looked at the score again. Joe had made six, too — he’d three-putted — but he’d written “5” for the par-four hole.
She pulled the visor of her cap down against the white-blue sky overhead and climbed into the golf cart a little angry, wanting to say something. Joe pulled himself in beside her and with a soft electric murmur and a ticking of wheels the cart glided to the tee of Number Five, the par-three that always had given him trouble. Peggy June looked off into the distance. Cheating! She’d never known him to cheat before. Why, he was known around town as “Honest Joe,” but to tell the truth, she hadn’t heard the nickname much lately.
She looked at him sideways in the cart for some sign of change, and saw none. He was the same Joe; oblivious to her presence there. Perhaps she might have overlooked something? Lately he’d called home from out-of-town trips to say he was staying over an extra day. And had she imagined the new girl at the office had been a little rude on the telephone?
Peggy June parked the cart on the path near the fourth tee, pausing to breathe in the scent of the newly mown ryegrass green, so fresh over the dead-winter river smell that it made her shiver. She looked at the scorecard again. With Joe’s cheating he was down one. She took a deep breath and made a decision.
She was going to win this one.
Number Five was an easy nine-iron shot to the green. Easy, that is, except for the banked sand bunker on the right and the lagoon of water on the left. The lagoon, ten clublengths wide and waist deep, shimmered blue and black, holding sky, fed from the deep rough beyond the markers. A flock of crows wheeled into view and then settled in a tall dead swamp pine as though waiting for something to happen.
Peggy June and Joe had to wait for the two couples ahead of them to hole out. Across the row of dividing pines on the opposite fairway, Number Eight, their lawyer’s foursome was playing, and Peggy June noticed that Glenn Argyle, who owned the Buick dealership, was about to make a shot. She had a soft spot for the little guy. He’d had a crush on her in high school and she had liked him. But along came Joe – the football captain.
The Buick man pitched the ball. It rose prettily, descended, bounced once on the green, then ran nearly up to the flagstick. A broad smile spread across Glenn’s face.
“Grinning like a monkey,” said Joe. “What a baboon.”
“What’s he got to be happy about?” said Joe. “His wife’s got the hots for the new pro.”
“Where do you get all this gossip?” Peggy turned away, her face flushed. She knew the talk, she’d heard it from her sister. And Glenn was such a nice person. Not one of these TV loudmouths. But he’d tried marriage three times and this one wasn’t going to last either. He loved them too much, everybody said. Wore his heart on his sleeve. A woman can get bored with that. Now she and Joe, they had lasted. Sometimes she wondered why.
She looked deliberately away from Joe, toward the road, and noticed a lank-haired boy, maybe ten, just outside the wire fence. The boy, apparently from the trailer park a mile down the road, wore jeans, T-shirt and a shabby golf cap. He’d been looking for lost balls, and grinned sheepishly when he saw Peggy June watching him. Peggy June returned the smile, but she looked away. She wouldn’t want to encourage him too much.
When she had learned to play golf, the course had been a scraggly nine holes amid fields of dog fennel and broomsedge. Now it was eighteen holes and growing lusher with each new wave of members: by the time that child was grown, new azaleas and dogwoods would be pushing the course in the direction of Augusta National.
In fact, Joe had gone that morning to meet with the elderly owner of the trailer park. Buying that particular piece of land was the last step in assembling the acreage for a country club community near the course. The old lady hadn’t wanted to sell. Maybe that was what was causing Joe’s bad temper. He had offered more than a fair price, and wasn’t used to being opposed. She looked back toward the boy and felt uneasy.
“All right, Peg.”
She stepped up to the marker. She’d take her time. She plunged the tee topped by its ball into the dirt, straightened, and took her stance. A stray curl tickled her cheek, and she paused to tuck it under her hat. Her shadow shimmered in the afternoon sun.
Over by the cart, Joe paced around. “Peggy June, dammit, come on!”
“My hair blew in my eyes, Joe.”
“You spend half your time dreaming up there on the tee.”
“I’m dreaming of beating you,” she said gaily.
“That’ll be the day.” He hadn’t picked up on her teasing mood, and the words were sour.
Peggy June picked up the nine-iron and positioned the clubhead again. The flag on the green flapped its yellow/white semaphore in the breeze. She blocked out everything but the ball: she took the club back, cocked her wrists, and hesitated at the top of the backswing. A trickle of perspiration ran down her nose. She ignored it and brought the 9-iron down. A sweet click resounded; the ball arced to the green, rolled, and rested three feet from the cup.
“Lucky,” muttered Joe.
Peggy June took a deep breath.
Joe stepped up, teed his ball, and swung without hesitation. The clubhead met the ball in a muddy thunk. Peggy June turned away and covered her eyes. Joe screamed and swore so loudly that Peggy June was sure Glenn’s foursome across the way could hear him. When she turned around, he was already in the golf cart, rolling off toward the trap.
She walked the distance to the green, watching him. He stopped the cart, set the brake, and waded into the trap, wedge in one hand like a balance pole. She softly crept over to the cart and edged her rear into the seat. Joe took his stance. He swung. His shot exploded, sending sand in all directions. The ball sailed over the green and splashed into the water on the other side.
“Goddam, Peg,” he yelled. “You got my rhythm off walking up like that.”
Peggy June sat quietly, club propped in her hand, letting the waves of anger beat against her. If she was patient they would abate, the way they always had. Some women, she supposed, wouldn’t have stood for it, but she figured once you were married, that was it, and it was the woman’s job to keep a happy home. She couldn’t see leaving Joe. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
And there were the memories. They’d been a golden couple — him a football star, her a cheerleader — their best time. But why? Wasn’t that kind of pathetic? Wasn’t there some poem—“grow old along with me, the best is yet to be?” Strange thought.
Joe stalked up to the water hazard, teeth clenched around a dead cigar. He set another ball by the hazard — Peggy June wondered if he’d record the extra stroke — then tossed the cigar over the fence into the woods. He took the iron back, paused for a little too long, then swung. And shanked the ball. It dribbled backwards into the water.
As the crimson mounted in Joe’s face, Peggy June smiled, and then she giggled, and then she laughed, knowing that she should not laugh, knowing it was cruel to poor Joe, her beloved Joe. Her cheating Joe. She gasped, trying to stop, and could not. Life was so ridiculous.
“Stop that!” bellowed Joe. He hurled his nine-iron into the water. At the splash, Peggy June choked the last giggle away and wiped her eyes. After all, she wanted to win fair and square.
Joe laid another ball on the grass. He took the eight-iron back, swung, and clipped it perfectly. Peggy June watched it sail in a perfect parabola over the green and land in the trap again.
“Joe—” began Peggy June. She intended to tell him she was sorry she had laughed. Her attempt at winning was heading in the wrong direction. Joe stalked back to the golf cart, not looking at her, his face dangerous.
“Shut up!” He gunned the golf cart forward, headlong toward Peggy June. She leaped out of the way just as he swerved to miss her. But he’d swerved too sharply, and the cart careened out of control, straight toward the water. The front wheel dug into the mud, pitching Joe out of the cart. He splashed into the lagoon. The crows in the dead pine flapped ponderously away, screaming and cawing.
Joe floundered and gasped, then fell back. He opened his mouth, coughed and spewed out water, waved his arms. Peggy June stared. What could be wrong? The water wasn’t that deep. Why wasn’t he wading out, screaming curses at her?
He fell back, nearly going under. “Huh—huhh—help.”
She plunged forward into the lagoon. My God, the water was cold! It nearly took her breath away, creeping up to her stomach, soaking her slacks. Icy muck crept into her shoes. “Hold on, Joe.” She slid her hands under his arms and lifted, straining to keep his head above water.
He sagged with dead weight.
“Help me, Joe,” she said. “Try to stand up.”
“Can’t...” He closed his eyes.
“Help!” she yelled. “Help!” His bulk was harder to hold. Couldn’t let his head go under. She began to shiver uncontrollably. She panted, heaved, lifted, implored. “Stand up, stand up, Joe. It’s not deep.” She saw her hat float crazily, foggily, by, bobbing just out of reach, and she realized her glasses were gone.
“Help!” she yelled again. Her voice clouded into hoarseness. Then a shout came from the distance, and she shook the hair out of her eyes. The blunt nose of a golf cart was rocking toward them across the fairway, and two men ran beside it. She braced herself once again. Her arms trembled with Joe’s weight. The water lapped around her, softly whispering.
The driver stopped the cart and jumped out, and the three men—their lawyer, their accountant, and Glenn Argyle—ran forward. Glenn was the first to reach Joe, followed by the lawyer and the accountant. “I’ve got him,” said Glenn, lifting Joe under the arms, and Peggy June gratefully let go. The other two men helped to struggle Joe out of the lagoon. Duncan Locarno, the new young doctor in town, had run behind them, and he guided the men in laying Joe on the grass before he stooped to examine him.
Peggy June stood by Glenn, holding on to his arm, willing her knees to keep working. “Good thing Duncan was with us,” said Glenn to Peggy June. “He almost didn’t come.”
“Good thing Jenny Morgan’ s baby decided to wait a few days,” said Duncan, peering into Joe’s eyes. “He’s coming around.” The two couples ahead of Peggy June and Joe had backtracked to the scene, and they stood gawking and whispering, their sporty outfits seeming suddenly out-of-place. A new shape appeared. “What’s going on?” it asked, and Peggy June recognized the uncertain voice of the new pro.
"Back up,” said Duncan. “Give him room.”
Peggy June leaned over Duncan’s shoulder. “Joe, Joe,” she called softly. He didn’t reply. She turned to Duncan. “What’s wrong?”
“Respiration a little weak,” Duncan said. “Can’t tell. Somebody go get my bag from my car.”
“I’ll go,” said the lawyer, snagging the keys that Duncan threw at him. He sped away in the cart, leaving tracks on the grass.
Glenn patted Peggy’s hand. “He’ll be all right.”
Peggy wanted to say something else but she blurted, “My glasses fell in the water. I can’t see.”
“They might be on the grass,” said Glenn. He took her elbow and guided her to the edge of the lagoon, and he searched the grass all around the cart. “Nope,” he finally said, “They’re not here.” He dipped his hand into the water, dragging the bottom, wetting his shirtsleeves.
“Please, Glenn. It doesn’t matter. I have an extra pair at home.”
Glenn studied the cart. “What happened, Peggy?”
“I tried to win, Glenn. I shouldn’t have.”
“What do you mean?”
Peggy didn’t answer, but turned her blurry vision to Joe. Duncan was listening to his chest with a stethoscope. Finally Joe raised himself up on his elbow. “Peggy?” he called faintly.
Peggy walked over and knelt beside him. “How are you?”
He sank back onto the grass. “You saved me,” he said in a wondering voice.
She shook her head and gestured at the four men. “They did.”
“No,” said Joe, “You.”
Peggy squeezed his hand. She looked at Duncan, and Duncan nodded. “I believe he’ll be all right.”
“Peggy,” called Glenn. She slowly straightened up and walked back over to him. Glenn walked her to the cart, took her putter from the golf bag, and handed it to her. She looked at it for a moment, suddenly conscious of a stillness and a stirring of wings. The crows, one by one, were settling back into the branches of the dead pine.
She walked onto the green and up to the ball where it lay three feet from the cup. The hole was fuzzy and the direction of the grass was a blur. She remembered that the lie was slightly uphill, and adjusted the angle of the putter. It was quiet, so quiet, except for the sighing of the pines. The woodpecker tapped once again.
She took the club back and stroked.
The ball rolled cleanly across the dry grass and dropped, and for a moment there was no sound but the ringing of the cup and the wind.
This story first appeared in Aethlon: Journal of Sports Literature
Copyright 2001 by Anne Lovett
Peggy June has always let her husband win. Until...