This story is by Lauren England and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I rarely played golf, even going so far as to make sure all of my business appointments were booked at the clubhouse after the lunch hour rush. It ensured that there wasn’t enough time in the day to play more than a couple of rounds before the light was too dim to see. It’s not that I played badly – I have a pretty decent handicap. It’s all the bullshit that went along with it, the inevitable caddying for clients to curry favor, the endless loss and search for golf balls in sand traps, weeds and alligator-infested ponds that pushed the edges of my patience. Gotta love South Florida and its never-ending encroachment upon the border of the Everglades, especially during one of the longest droughts on record. Sweating my balls off at ten A.M. on a Tuesday is not how I envisioned spending my workdays, but down here it’s almost a religion.
This client, though… I pulled out all the stops in trying to persuade him into meeting me anywhere but the golf course. I even offered to pay for a private table at one of the five-star Michelin-approved restaurants in town, but he politely declined. I’m not talking about simple steak and wine, either. This table was a seven course affair with a waiting list longer than my…well it was long. Nothing was verboten when it came to avoiding the golf course. He insisted, though, and I had to finally give in. The client comes first, especially when one’s personal financial standing is on shaky ground.
Third-quarter bonuses weren’t a perk this time around, they were a necessity. Having our health insurance denied for the life-threatening ‘pre-existing condition’ my wife was getting treatment for through our previous insurance made all but the barest necessities unaffordable. Bonuses used to go to ski trips and new cars; now they’re going to mortgage payments and utility bills. Our upcoming wedding anniversary was a welcome distraction, but I’d have sacrificed it all the same to get out of this.
Discreetly separating my khakis from the inside of my sticky thighs for the third time in as many minutes, I peered across the 12th green and back at my client. My pride took a dip as the other man executed another perfect swing, ball sailing cleanly through the air to land mere centimeters from the hole. On a par four no less. It had taken me five putts on my best day and he was going to sink it in two. Fuck. I may hate golf, but I hate losing even more. I could see him trying vainly to hide a smile as he tapped his golf ball into the hole after my final putt. “That’s, what, five holes straight I’ve beaten you? Or is it six? I can’t remember.” Oh, did I mention this guy had his face right next to ‘cocky’ in the dictionary? He’d started this shit around the fourth hole and hadn’t let up. I dutifully gripped the pencil and marked down his tally. I was trailing by seven and we had another six holes to go.
“Hey.” I jumped as he clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t take it too hard, Jim. I’ve been playing since I was old enough to hold a club. Most people won’t even play with me anymore. Tired of losing, I guess.” He smiled again but this one was softer, stretching toward but not quite completely reaching condescension.
I plastered my best ‘customer-is-always-right’ grin on my face and tried to humor him. “I’m sure. You play a great game, Mr. Grayson.” He nodded as if I was merely giving him his due, a king acknowledging a slightly uneducated courtier. We walked back to the golf cart and I handed him a water bottle from the cooler before grabbing my own. I downed most of mine in one long pull, but he merely sipped as if the sweltering Florida heat barely affected him. I wanted to grit my teeth in envy. The back of my own shirt was already uncomfortably sticky from the humidity and sweat clinging to my skin, but this guy could have been sitting under an air conditioner. I hated him.
He took a final sip, then capped his water bottle and politely set it on the lid of the cooler. “Listen, let’s make this interesting. If you win this game, I’ll sign whatever contract you want, no questions asked. If I win, however, you have to give me the first thing you lay your hand on when you walk through your door this evening.” He leaned against the cart and grinned.
I couldn’t believe it. “What? No questions asked? You’d agree to a million-dollar contract or something, just because I won a golf game?” My mouth hung open while I attempted to process what he’d said. Even a ten-percent bonus on a contract like that would be around… a hundred grand.
“Yup.” The p popped in finality and he winked. He actually winked.
“But if I lose, I end up without a contract and I dunno, my grandmother’s lamp?” I could already envision the cracked Tiffany-style lamp on the sideboard in our hallway. My father’s mother had always sworn up and down that it was the real deal, but I’d had my doubts – it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. I hated that lamp more than I hated this client.
He frowned softly and waved his hand in dismissal. “You could still get the contract. I’m always open to business negotiations. The item would be…let’s call it an addition to my collection. I’m a collector of sorts, and I’ve never failed to be surprised when I’ve placed this bet. Surprise is the spice of life, as they say.” I was fairly sure that wasn’t how the saying went, but I shrugged it off. Whatever, if this guy wanted a cracked lamp so badly, he could have it. I could almost see the dollar signs floating around my head. Maybe if I’d paid more attention I’d have seen the leer on his face instead.
The rest of the back nine almost flew by. I felt reinvigorated by the new terms. Apparently so did my swinging arm, because I managed to almost catch up to his score by the 18th hole. The last hole was a par-five with a large sand trap almost directly across from the hole, off to the left and partially hidden by a natural rise. I wanted to cheer when I watched my shot veer right, heading almost directly for the flag, when an abrupt and unexpected gust of wind caught the ball and hooked it into the sand.
He winced in sympathy. “Ouch. That looked like a great shot, too.”
I was stunned for a moment, then silently stalked toward the trap, placing my marker where the ball had rolled to a stop. I’ve still got a chance. I’m not out of this yet. Focus, man, you’ve got a million dollar contract riding on this.
I quickly checked the scorecard. Yep, I led by two points and he was about to attempt a par-five hole. There was no way he could win this game. Visions of new cars danced in my head.
That was, they did until I heard the distinct sound of a golf ball clinking against the metal cup. You have gotta be shitting me. I blinked. No way he just… But he had. He had just aced a par-five hole. I’d heard about condor shots, but in the same hushed reverent tones usually reserved for weeping statues of the Virgin Mary and similar miracles. I stared at him, my jaw hanging open, as he casually lifted the ball from the hole and inspected it, then looked up at me and beamed.
“Guess I win.” He walked over to me and patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry Jim, we can talk tomorrow about that contract. Mind if I stop by your place later on and pick up my surprise?” It was the most I could do to nod at him, mumbling a quiet, “Sounds good, Mr. Grayson.” He tossed the ball into his bag and drove off without looking back, leaving me standing dumbstruck on the 18th hole alone.
I had almost forgotten about the terms of our little bet by the time I turned into our driveway, too focused on what I would say during the negotiations to ensure that most of that million dollars I had coveted wouldn’t slip away. I was in the middle of a brilliant mental speech when I opened the door and saw my daughter running down the hall to greet me. “Daddy! You’re home!” I reached out to scoop her up and remembered.
I snatched my hands back from my daughter as if burned. “No, no no no.” I had almost touched her. I pressed my hand to my chest, feeling my heart slamming against my ribs. I had almost given that fucker my only child. Before I could look around to find the lamp I had envisioned I heard a sinister chuckle behind me. “Oh, how delightful! And you had almost pulled off your little trick, too! Had you but reached to your left, I would be the proud owner of a badly forged copy of a 1927 Tiffany lamp. Instead, you gave me a pièce de résistance.” His laughter continued to rumble from him as I turned around in panicked confusion.
“What are you talking about? I haven’t touched anything!”
“Oh, but you have.” He brought his hand to his chest in an exact mirror of my position, placed directly over his heart.
No. Oh God, no. I took a step away from him, then another, and another. He followed me up to the threshold of the front door, his pace mirroring mine, laughter tapering to chuckling as he watched my horror-stricken face. “Do you know how long I have waited for someone to give me something like this? How long I have wandered this earth, trapped in this forsaken existence? And now you have given me what I have most wanted to collect. A life.”
I stared at him in mute horror. “I don’t want to die.” I meant to shout it in his face, but all I could utter was a whisper.
He rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to die. You’re just…not going to live.”
I looked down at his hand intertwined with mine. When had that happened? “Where are we going?”
“We’re not going anywhere, just you.” He yanked and I felt like I was flying for just a moment, weightless and free, then I slammed into something cold and unyielding. When I looked up, my own face was staring back at me, laughing. I raised my fists in anger and confusion, but they didn’t feel right. I stared down at my hands, and with a sinking horror realized that they weren’t my own, they were his. Before the last of my consciousness faded, I heard my own voice laughing at me from far away.
That was several years ago. I hear that ‘Jim’ has been doing well, especially since his golf game miraculously improved. Good thing I’ve started my own collection since Mr. Grayson and I last met. You never know when a good set of golf clubs will come in handy, especially on these Florida courses. They’re great collector’s items, didn’t you know?