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Today's Story by Eugene H. Bales

If there is any larceny in a man, golf will bring it out.

Funny Game

On their first date, Harold Welsh said to Livvi Trane, “I love to play tennis too.”

Liar, Livvi thought.

He lacked the hard body look. No extra pounds jiggled on him, but fat had to be leering at his round features waiting to jump on. Livvi, at age twenty-one, was still trying to adjust to her hard body and defined muscles.

Livvi played tennis better than any of the other players on her university’s team. On her second date with Harold they played a match. He charged the net, and she sweat and panted darting around the court to put him away with passing shots. When she made the last point to defeat him, for a second or two Harold looked as anguished as someone who feels a pistol barrel pressed into his temple.

“Why don’t you go out for the men’s team?” she asked him in her low voice.

“Someone else would be the best,” Harold said. “I wanna be extraordinary.” He smiled, showing real teeth perfect enough to be manmade.

Harold came to one of her university matches. At its conclusion as she wiped her face with a towel, he said, “You hit the ball hard from the baseline. If you came to the net, you’d be even more overpowering.”

“I lack strong wrists.”

Livvi thought, Wow, what an honest man—daring soul—trying to make a good impression. If I took it wrong, he’d lose me.

She knew. Once when he had opened his car door for her, she saw the evidence that he had washed and vacuumed it. Touching the windshield, the wet, gray rag he had used to wipe the dashboard still lay tucked into a corner.

After she knew him better, she asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“Nothing out of the yellow pages. I want excitement.”

Twenty years later he was still maintaining that working for the government brought smiles to his soul. He never told his wife what, where, or why. She begged him once to tell her where he would be. She’d point to countries on a globe. Would he please just nod when she was pointing to the correct country.

“No,” he said, “it’s classified. I do have the extraordinary me I wanted.”

“Am I ever going to know what or why?” she asked.

“I don’t want to give you false hope.”

“Go ahead. Lie if you need to.” Livvi forced a laugh.

When he got back from his three months away, he wished Livvi would play golf with him. “After all, I play tennis with you even though you always beat me.”

“I’d be no competition for you,” Livvi said.

“Good. I want your company and I wanna beat you.”

When Harold left, Livvi thought that she too could be like him and do something larger than life if she could learn to be a competitive golfer during April, May, and June.

Harold had told her that Melly Devine was one of the best women pro golfers and teachers. In order to teach herself, Livvi bought Melly’s book, The Devine Descent, and her video, The Moving Devine Descent. Why should one spend significant money to learn something that’s supposed to be fun? If she invested in lessons, could she justify that much money if she found she disliked golf? Further, if she could teach herself, it would be a great achievement. Surely that’s part of what having the athletic gift meant—your teacher could be in a book or video, and you’d learn almost as fast as if you had a personal instructor. Your body would make the right choices in the same way Shakespeare knew what word should come next.

Livvi went to the driving range at their country club to practice what she learned. Sometimes she did make a shot that looked like one of Melly’s. Other times her ball dribbled twenty-five yards along the ground. Some shots she curved to the right. Others she hit the ground behind the ball and expended most of the club’s force taking a bite of turf before her club met the ball. Most embarrassing, sometimes she whiffed the ball, her club flying through the air striking nothing. She hoped no one was watching. She stopped herself from looking to check. With the extra force in one’s swing, there’s no faking that a whiff is practice.

The truth was golf was too much to teach oneself in spite of Melly Devine’s smiley assurances in her book and video. Livvi could open Melly’s book to any page and find something impossible to know whether you were doing it correctly or incorrectly.

“Halfway through the downswing, my right shoulder is slightl lower than the left.

“When the club head is about to contact the ball, my weight has shifted to my left side. My left hand is pulling as the right hand tries to catch it. My wrists are fully uncocked. The back of the left hand faces the target.”

Livvi needed lessons from a professional golfer-teacher. Her name–Patty Hubble, blonde and tanned. When the pro took off her cap, her forehead was white.

Livvi practiced so much she did little housework. Lint grew on the floors to the size of gerbils. She only washed the dishes when she needed clean ones to eat from. The house smelled neglected, gained the odor of what should be disposed of or cleaned—leftover foods, sticky spills, dirty toilets.

At the end of one of his weekly phone calls, Harold told her he would be home in four days. After cutting time for golf practice, she ticked and churned through the house with dust rag, furniture polish, vacuum cleaner, and Lysol. She ran two loads of dishes through the dishwasher and filled it half full with the remaining.

Patty Hubble told Livvi she had never felt so clean and effective about a student. When you took the God-given athletic ability that Livvi possessed and combined it with hard work—but even then, no one made the gains Livvi had made in the same short time.

“Think I could ever shoot par consistently?” Livvi asked.

“Yes,” Patty said, “with ongoing practice. Even with your gift, golf is that challenging.”

Harold beamed when she challenged him to a golf game. “Now you are everything I wanted in another person.” He laughed his actor’s laugh. With it, he could inform a roomful of people that this man never took himself seriously.

When they played their match, the thermometer read eighty-five. Cloudless sky. Every stone tee box marker offered quotes. Under the picture of the hole on number one, Livvi read,

Golf is a funny game.
If there is any larceny in a man,
golf will bring it out.

— Paul Gallico

Both pulled their clubs on wheeled pull carts. Harold would shoot from the championship tees; Livvi the forward. After playing the first three par four holes, Livvi was tied with Harold at one over par. She watched him watching her. He repeatedly shut his mouth and tried to slip unconcern back on his face.

Livvi hadn’t mishit a shot. The wind lacked enough velocity to lift the flags marking the holes from their flagsticks.

The tee marker said par three for the fourth hole, 105 yards, with a water hazard in front of it and sand traps on each side. Livvi hit her first tee shot in the water. With her penalty, her next tee shot counted as stroke three. She opted to shoot another ball immediately, which looked to her, as she watched its trajectory, like a much better shot. It hit the green and jumped a few inches back toward the cup. She could tap it in for bogey, one stroke over par. Harold hit his tee shot on the green five feet from the cup. He smiled, now in control of his mouth. Livvi hoped she could start making it come open again. Harold putted his five-footer. It rolled around the cup, and Livvi realized she was holding her breath hoping the ball would lip out. Instead it dropped and rattled.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Harold said.

Livvi tapped in her eight-inch putt.

Harold one stroke under par, a birdie. Livvi bogey. Harold ahead by two strokes.

After hole seven, Harold was winning by one stroke. The tee marker on hole eight read,

I found something that can take five points off your golf game—an eraser.

— Joey Adams

On the hole, a forty-foot tree towered in front of the green. Livvi’s shot curved around it, but Harold’s hit it—thunk, thunk—and caromed thirty-five yards to the right. Harold pitched, like a pop-up in baseball, to the elevated green. His shot stuck, but he lay forty-five feet from the hole. He putted his ball to within two feet. She sank her three-foot birdie putt. Harold made a bogey. Livvi ahead by one stroke.

On the ninth hole the tee stood on a hill, comparable to standing on the roof of a four-story building. Livvi looked at the fairway below, and, for two beats, felt the exhilarating dizziness of one afraid of heights. She took a deep breath. She told herself even if Harold beat her, a golf course with its trees, ponds, and grass evenly green was where daydreams put her.

Harold’s drive landed behind a tree, and he spent a stroke to get out of trouble. Livvi had hope of going ahead by two or more strokes. Her ball lay on the green in three strokes giving her a chance for birdie. Harold lay on the fringe in four. Only after Harold’s chip shot did Livvi realize how long she held her breath and how stiffly she was holding herself when she saw the ball heading for the flagstick at the right speed and the correct allowance for the green’s left-to-right break. She wished it would go six feet past but knew it was going to go in. It ticked against the flagstick. Harold tipped his cap to an imaginary gallery.

“Par,” he said, beaming. “The hard way.”

Livvi missed her twenty-foot putt which went four feet beyond the cup and blamed her certainty of Harold’s blowing up and his recovery for shaking her concentration. She missed her second putt and tapped in for bogey.

Tied at forty strokes for the front nine.

As they walked the tenth hole, Livvi marveled afresh at the deceptiveness of Harold’s roundish body and bald head. You never saw muscles working, no look of balls rolling under the skin.

After sixteen holes, each had sixty-eight strokes.

Both carded bogeys on hole seventeen.

Livvi saw Harold whiff his second shot on the eighteenth hole. She made a par four and saw her husband’s mouth drop open again. She smiled. If he counted his complete miss on the first swing of his second shot, he would have bogey. He pulled the scorecard out of his golf bag and asked her what she got.


“And I shot one more than that,” Harold said. After totaling, he whistled at the numbers that Livvi knew they both knew already. “Wow. Livvi seventy-seven; Harold seventy-eight. Damn near impossible for someone to acquire your skill in three months. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.” Livvi held out her hand, and Harold shook it.

Livvi realized how Harold struggled to keep the reappearing frown off his face which seemed as serious as money.

That night they went to a party at a friend’s house. When Harold told people that she had beat him by one stroke, she beamed. Young servers, blond and muscular, dressed in black pants, white shirts, and ties picturing football action photographs, offered pesto mushrooms. Livvi figured she must have talked to five different people when a server offered her tortilla spiral finger sandwiches filled with cream cheese and smoked salmon, and, finally, when everyone she talked to had breath sweetened by alcohol, servers held out trays of artichoke fritters.

By then, Harold was telling people she had shot three strokes under par and had only been golfing three months. Livvi knew Harold never drank more than one drink. She had to blame him.

Irony, irony, Livvi thought, the first lie about our personal lives he ever tells is about sports which matter so little to matter so much. She thought about his telling her the truth twenty years ago. He dared to be truthful at a time when he was ignorant about whether or not she wanted it about her good tennis game, the achievement that brought a glow within and the one she had devoted so many hours to excelling in.

Livvi tapped on her glass, and when people kept talking, she whistled loud as a horn, and when people finally stopped talking, she said in her big voice, “My husband’s joking you. I did win, but we both shot over par. He’s been transported by his pride in my accomplishment.”

And there’s my little lie.

For a second or two, stunned silence. Laughter started which gained volume like a motor gaining revolutions. Livvi knew Harold started it. No one else had his stagy laugh. With it, he told secrets.


Eugene H. Bales has published fifty-nine stories including a volume of humor and satire by Washburn University’s Press.

Read more stories by Eugene H. Bales


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