Friday, 6 May 2016

Strong, Bad

Dad’s hedge was meant as a defense against the surprising number of poor golfers who would hook or slice those tiny white moons towards our house, but Dad’s little cedar trees just couldn’t grow fast enough. It was years before they even peaked their heads over our fence. Dad would be washing the dishes, say, and some white streak would disappear in the direction of the weed patch my parents once imagined would be Mom’s garden. Dad would curse, lean across the soapy water and try to spy through the fence’s low lattice crown the offending member of whatever group was walking down the fairway of the 11th hole. “Fuck,” Dad would say and I would look up from my train set, or my TV show or, eventually, the book spread across my knees. “Fucking golfers,” Dad would say, or sometimes, “Fucking trees,” as if those cedars were doing something undignified, huddling behind the fence there or taking some unnatural amount of time to grow.
Of course, windows broke, too. The two bedrooms at the back of the house, regular victims of golf-ball attacks, became an unused office and a guest room that Mom would only allow guests in after dusk and from which, at dawn, young me would be tasked with chasing them by being allowed to play with my bin of noisy toys—a Fisher-Price musical instrument with interchangeable mouth pieces, a xylophone with a foul note, a Tickle-Me Elmo—otherwise kept on a high shelf in my closet. My parents had a sunroom built off the family room. It was a great cage constructed of mosquito screens and white-washed wood that saved the sliding doors from sudden, surprise shattering. I would tell you where I was each time each of the other back windows broke, but it happened so frequently that just the litany of events I could remember—a fraction of them—would bore you.
We’d hear our neighbours’ windows shatter, too, and if it was close enough Mom or Dad would get up and go check the basement windows or whatever windows they were far enough from that they could imagine having been the source of that sickening sound.
More often a ball would thump against the fence, its vertical wooden slats proving our finest defense against the threat of strong, bad golfers. I can’t say that we all always did it, but I think most of the time we would each, if we’d heard a ball contact wood, walk to the window and look out to see who came looking for their ball. When windows broke, the twosomes, threesomes or foursomes playing the eleventh would stick to the fairway, keep their eyes on the course and on their balls, especially whoever was hitting a replacement. I’d watch them from the office, from the guest room or, if the weather was nice enough and I was outside, nestled amongst the stunted cedars, my face pressed against the fence’s wooden slats. I could usually guess who’d done it—the person lagging behind everyone else, the person who would hit their next ball then pivot their head in a jerking, wild panic wondering where this missile would land, knowing it wasn’t where they’d intended. But the balls that hit the fence, we’d always know who hit those because they’d come cursing or shouting to their fellow golfers—“I think it landed here! Over there?! Got it!”—before either trying to play it where it lay, well out of bounds, or taking a stroke and walking it back past the paved path to drop it near the edge of the fairway. Very few of these fence hitters noticed us or our neighbours plotting repairs and revenge in the shadows behind our back windows.
When I turned 13, Dad bought me an air rifle. It was an unusual gift for a girl who’d never expressed an interest in shooting anything, who’d never even had a cap gun. I practiced from my window, trying to shoot the stunted, brown-spotted leaves off the heritage oak that the developers who built our subdivision had been forced by some historical or preservation society to work around. If a squirrel or something skittered out onto a branch, I’d put the gun down. Or if a car pulled onto our street.
Once, one of the neighbours—Mrs. Bartholdi, whose house was filled with replicas of the Statue of Liberty because her husband was a descendent of the French sculptor who’d designed it—spotted me from the front window of her house across the street. It was early May and still cold out so she put a jacket on over her housecoat. As she crossed the street Mrs. Bartholdi held the jacket closed with her hands. She hadn’t bothered to change out of her slippers.
I set the safety and leaned the gun up against my dresser.
The doorbell called through the house. I pushed my door nearly shut and sat beside it to listen to the conversation. Dad answered the door. Mrs. Bartholdi was upset, reasonably, but I was too young for her to demand to see me. Dad explained that it was an air rifle—nothing to worry about—and explained the simple rules they’d laid out for me: never point it at someone, make sure that any people around are aware that you are shooting. She wasn’t really reassured. Dad explained that I was a very good student, that I was kind, that I cried once when he’d had to set a mousetrap and wouldn’t look at the flypaper he hung above the garbage cans in the garage. Mrs. Bartholdi wanted to know what a girl was doing with an air gun anyway. Dad said, Now Mrs. Bartholdi, and, Wasn’t Annie Oakley a sharpshooter? I believe she was. Mrs. Bartholdi asked, Who’s Annie Oakley? Dad said, It just goes to show that women, girls, can do whatever they want. Mrs. Bartholdi expained that I could not point a gun towards her house and if I did it again she would call the police or if she saw me pointing a gun towards any place with people again she would call the police.
The door slammed. I was almost certain Mrs. Bartholdi had slammed it, but I took a few leaping strides to get to the window and try and read what had happened from her pace and body language. She leaped from our front lawn to the road inches below and without breaking stride whipped her head left then right to make sure no cars were coming. She hopped the curb onto her own front lawn, then snapped her head around to look up at my window and I nearly hit my chin on my dresser ducking to get out of her line of sight. When I dared look again, she was violently pulling budding plants from the garden beside her front walk, a dirty row of her green victims already lined up beside her.
I flinched.
“Mind if I come in?” Dad was already half inside my room.
“You startled me,” I said.
Dad sat on my bed. I sat beside him. We both looked at my air gun.
“New rule,” Dad said.
“No shooting where people might be?”
“Only shooting out back.”
“There’s lots of people out there.”
“She,” Dad gestured towards the window, towards Mrs. Bartholdi, “can’t see you if you use the back window.”
Dad grabbed my air rifle and walked out of my room. I followed him.
Dad was mad about the golf club’s maple sapling, which was growing at a much more impressive rate than our cedars and would, once the cedars cleared our fence, continue to cast our evergreens in shadow for part of the day. Worse, the maple tree might manage to keep us and our windows safe before the trees Dad planted would and that would mean that the course designer’s or landscaper’s or whoever’s kindness and thoughtfulness not Dad’s would be the thing that kept Mom and me and Dad safe from the real threat of the golf balls and the exhausting state of alertness we lived in each daylight hour eight months of the year.
The little maple, its leaves a bright, translucent green in the sunshine, stood proud and vulnerable. Out on the 11th fairway a man in yellow and black plaid plus-fours wiggled and swayed while he stared down his club at his ball. A woman in a broad brimmed hat and a man in an argyle sweater-vest watched the man in plus-fours. But there, looking at the lovely little maple, was Aaron Martin, a quiet guy in my grade 7 class who played saxophone in music and who had a black and lime neon fanny pack in which he kept a Game Boy that he played all lunch and between classes. He had a set of clubs hanging from a strap under his left arm.
The man in the yellow plaid looked towards the 11th green then back at his ball.
Dad slid the window open.
Aaron looked up.
“Shit,” Dad said.
Aaron turned away from our house and away from the maple tree. I noticed that he didn’t have on his fanny pack.
Dad wiggled the screen a few times to clear it from the frame. I watched carefully, ready to help. Dad set the screen against the guest bed.
When we looked back to the course, Aaron was looking towards our house again.
“Okay. What are you staring at, kid?” Dad said. 
The man in the yellow pants struck the ball. Leaning to his right and holding his club in front of his face, the man watched his ball fly.
Aaron turned back to the game and started to walk away.
Dad lifted the air rifle to the window, closed one eye and sighted down the barrel.
The woman in the broad brimmed hat set down her clubs and walked up to her ball.
I tried to figure out at whom Dad was aiming. I saw his finger pull the trigger. I watched his brow twist up in confusion when nothing happened.
“The safety,” I told him.
He grunted.
“Not Aaron, please,” I said.
Dad looked at me. “Who’s Aaron?”
“Him.” I pointed. “He’s in my class.”
“Okay,” Dad said. He was aiming the gun again.
When he fired I watched the players for a response. Nothing.
“Damn it,” Dad said. He told me to go and get more pellets. By the time he’d loaded and gotten set again, Aaron was lining up a shot. Dad fired and missed again. He swore again. Then he asked me if I wanted to try.
The answer was no, but I took the gun anyway. Once I’d loaded a pellet, I used the sill to steady my hand and I sighted the man in the sweater-vest. He was preparing to chip out of a bunker near the green. I fired as he raised his club up. I’d meant to hit his arm, but he’d drawn that up and back exposing his side. I watched the club fly out of his hand and straight up in the air. He yelped as he sat down heavily in the sand, clutching his ribs. He was checking the air around him, trying to divine the source of his pain. I was laughing. Dad was hooting as quietly as he could and shaking my shoulders. When Aaron looked towards our open window we both stopped. The man in the plus-fours and the woman with the broad-brimmed hat were laughing and teasing the shot man who was now moaning and brushing at his clothes like whatever had stung him might be stuck in there.
It must have been in May or June because I remember being in school a day or two later and one of our teachers asking us to write about what we had planned for the summer. Aaron mentioned that he was hoping to do much more golfing, so at lunch I had a reason to go up to him and ask about the sport. I even mentioned that I lived near the golf course and he asked, “Like, in those houses along the . . . Which hole is it?”
“The eleventh.”
“Yeah, the eleventh. My Uncle Murray got stung there, in the sand trap. Do you guys have trouble with bees or hornets or wasps or something?”
“Oh yeah,” I lied. “It’s bad.”
Shooting Aaron’s Uncle Murray was a terrible thing to do, really, and someone could have really been hurt. What’s that, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” thing from A Christmas Story or whatever, with the Red Rider BB Gun? Believe me, there were times when I thought about that. But shooting golfers became a thing between Dad and me. When Mom was out. I was always careful to avoid aiming near people’s eyes and only fired at golfers’ heads when they were turned away. Dad started calling me Annie or Miz Oakley, even around Mom, and he bought me a target and insisted that practice in the back yard or in our unfinished basement so that the nickname made sense, but also so I could get better. I did of course. Like, I missed in that first year, obviously, but not often. Then for my next birthday, my 14th, Dad got me what was essentially a BB gun equivalent of a sniper rifle and my success rates went way up. We kept stats and stuff. A bit embarrassing really, but Dad was proud of me and that was nice. A bond, you know.
And in our defense, it did feel like we were owed something by the golfers, so there was that.
The cedar trees eventually grew too tall, which was good for our windows, but bad for sport. Like if when I came home from school to visit, Dad and I wanted to shoot, we had to go up on the roof to do it. We did that a few times, lying flat on the side of the roof facing our small road, our backs to Mrs. Bartholdi’s house. I think that was what did it, what stopped us—the possibility that after all our years of clandestine shooting our neighbour would make good on her threat to call the police if I was caught. So we stopped.
Dad and I had a few hard years of sitting around and looking at each other wondering what to do to replace the shooting. Wondering what hobby we could share.
We took up golf.
Toronto, May 2016

Emoji sequence: Kate Sheppard
Story: Lee Sheppard

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