by Samuel Cronin
Joe moved up the lakebed, sweeping over the balls with the nineteen stubnose prongs of his rake. Each pass was in desperation to gather them as they spun back against the rake reluctantly. They rolled into the depressions, again and again, as he tried to dig them out of the mud. It was futile. The temptation to abandon them weighed on him—a wedge pressed into his skull.
That’s when he noticed at his feet a ball, more peculiar than any he’d seen. Buried partially in the deep depression of a moonlike crater, it seemed to him an orb of gold, the half-closed eye of a dragon—a glowing portal to a hidden kingdom. His hand slackened on the rake.
It was a yellow WITTEK range ball. Beside the title was the silhouetted imprint of a golfer finishing his stroke. He’d never seen that brand before and it startled him, thinking he might like to keep it with him as his permanent golf ball, because it was “a real good one, a nice one.”
With the butt of the rake he stabbed at it. It wouldn’t budge. He scooped and kicked and pried at it with his heel. The angle of the depression was too steep. With blistered fingers he clawed; a pirate desperate to steal for himself a treasure. With one last whack, it broke loose.
As he stood, he raised the range ball into the sun and imagined playing it on Hole Seven. Water hugs the right of the green. Sand on the left. Pin at the back. And my sweet stroke through the ball. How it soars and drops onto the green and rolls in for a hole-in-one. “This is the one I’ve been searching for. I’m a golfer now. Like Dellick and Koahn.”
Then he turned it. The whole occipital bone was blown open, like an exit wound from a hollow point bullet. Filaments of plastic, black as obsidian, twisted together like tendons of flesh. Mangled. Pustular. Seared somehow by heat.
As if poisoned, he shuddered and dropped it, fleeing to another area of the lakebed to rake. “That’s nothin’,” he said in a quavering drawl. “That ain’t no good or nothin’. That’s a bad one there,” he said, walking away awkwardly. “A real bad one.”
Dellick and Koahn looked at each other and laughed. “Is that a bad one, Orion Joe?” said Koahn. “A real bad one?”
“I am not Onion Joe,” he strained in a whisper. “Don’t call me that,” as he scraped spiritlessly at a ball, one of over ten thousand scattered across the desiccated range.
As thin and fragile as a graphite shaft, he did not have the strength to rake them all. They were different in title and wear—Titleist, Srixon, Taylor Made, Precept, Callaway, Nike, Noodle, ProV1’s, Project [a]’s, some in worse shape than others, so faded that their brand name had been rubbed off; others new, removed from the sleeve and on the first swing, shanked into a pond. They were scuffed and halved, faded and smooth, so fragile that they bulged like dirty eggs. The common thread: 1) All of them had been smacked; 2) Joe believed he wasn’t good enough to play with any of them.
Koahn, a hybrid of unbridled energy and half-sleeping eyes, gazed at the lakebed in an abstract smile, cool and white with little effort to outshine his perfect tan. “Don’t worry, you’ll find your ball, Orion Joe. You’ll have to: tomorrow they turn the water on.” He flicked Dellick on the shoulder and, on cue, together disappeared into the clubhouse, where the rest of the team, coaches included, were watching the opening round of the Masters.
Joe’s worrisome eyes bulged from behind bottleneck glasses as he scratched at his freckles. His long pipelike neck pumped. Now alone on the range, he whispered, “I am not Onion Joe. I do not stink. If I have to, I will rake in all these balls by myself, Koahn.”
But his words sputtered onto the ground in front of his duct tape-wrapped tennis shoes. And his eyes strained against the heat, “There’s gotta be a ball out here for me. Gotta be. I’ll play a good round. Dellick and Koahn and Coach Oats will see me play.”
Out by the safety nets one of the upper classmen was picking out golf balls for himself and stuffing all he could carry into his pockets. Joe hadn’t noticed him until now—so small, so pockmarked—blending in with the rest of the range, a damaged ball himself. It was Quentin Roselle, a teammate with a game more mangled than even Joe LeMoyle’s.
As Quentin rubbed his overbitten upper lip, Joe put his hands on the net. “What goes, Quentin?”
“Oh, you know,” he said in his high sigh, “Searching for the Gray Stripers.”
“The 2014 ProV1s. The best of the best,” he said with a lisp. “Find any?”
Joe looked behind him quickly to see if he had been followed. “You shouldn’t be behind that net, Quentin. Those ProV1s are for the good ones.”
“They’re for anyone with enough courage to rake them in.”
“But we all agreed to dig out the ProV1s for Dellick and Koahn. They’ll pound you.”
Quentin shrugged. “It’s a cyclical process, Joe. You understand that? Golfers like them tee up for a round and in the course of it, slice an entire sleeve into the pond. That’s how the course replenishes their range balls—with Dellick and Koahn’s bad drives. If they cared to keep these Gray Stripers, they’d learn to play with them in the first place.” He found one and held it up to the sunlight. “Check it out. This one’s perfect.” And he passed it under the net.
As Joe turned it, his jaw slackened. There was something magical about a ProV1. Handling one was a spiritual blessing. With no scratches or scuffs, not even a smidge of dirt, it gleamed like a handmade pearl.
“Can’t you see why I hoard them?” said Quentin.
“They’re the best of the best,” said Joe, surprised by his own words. “So many good ones.”
“I’ll trade you for it.”
“Trade?” He took a long indrawn breath. “You’ll trade me a ProV1?” The thought crippled him. “He handed it back to Quentin and whispered, “I’m not good enough to play with a ProV1. That’s what Coach Oats said. When I tried out for the team, I thought the balls looked like onions.”
“That’s why we call you Orion Joe.”
Joe kicked the dirt. “I’m not Onion Joe!” He stormed away from Quentin. “I’m done with raking in all these stupid range balls! I will smack you hard if you call me that again! I’ll smack every one of you! My swing speed is fast!”
But as he pulled away from the range, as he pulled away, a magnetic desire pulled him back to that WITTEK. He scooped it up against his feeble will and held it to his chest.
Quentin dipped back under the net and came to him, “What did you find?” softly prying open Joe’s sweaty fingers and holding the WITTEK into the light. “Ooh man. Look at this gem. Look at the character in those scars. Look at how much that ball has suffered, being on this team, playing the game. How did you hunt this one down?” The pockets of his cargo shorts bulged with ProV1s. “I’ll trade you all my Gray Stripers for it. Every ProV1 in this lakebed for that WITTEK of yours, Orion Joe.”
“You mean Onion…”
“This is the best ball on this range. Only a brave hunter could’ve found it.”
Joe pushed up his glasses with is bony forefinger. “You really would trade all those Gray Stripers for this WITTEK?”
“Look at it. It’s perfect. A one-of-a-kind ball for the bravest golfer on our team.”
Joe shivered. It was far from perfect, wasn’t it? The cranial marring. The trauma. The scars. If he struck it, it would only add to the abuse it had already suffered on every course it played—at home, in the hallways, the classrooms, in the library, on the playground.
“You outshine them all, Joe. No one on this team works harder than you.”
As Joe gazed at the title of his WITTEK, how curious that the lone T rose above the I and T which flanked it, like a butchered cross. What if the blow torch which melted it had made it something more? If the hideousness of it had been reshaped into a unique, irreplaceable keepsake, inspiring him to play, one mutilated golfer with another?
“You know? I think I’ll hold onto this WITTEK.,” he said with a slyboots grin. “Yeah, I will. I may be an onion. But I’m also a raker.”
He dropped it in his pocket and walked off the range, happy to be himself—the unfathomable, unanimous, designated team captain, “Orion” Joe LeMoyle.