It’s not often that I forget about the coyote that lived on the Ridgeview Golf Course in the summer of ‘75. He used to stalk the fairways, panhandling the golfers like some tired old mutt. Of course that was before the swan got to him.
It took Pete and me the better half of the morning just to gather the poor bastard up off number nine. His throat had been ripped clean out of his neck, gutted and hollow, painting the fairway and the base of the pond red, and dashing it with dirty white feathers. They seemed to still be raining down on us, as we dragged the coyote off the course by his ankles.
Something like a dirty fog had settled over Ridgeview that summer – a gray humid curtain flapping in our eyes and driving us senseless. Most just blamed the heat. But every so often, if you looked hard and long enough, you might just see the silhouette of a great wingspan, a hulking sight, beating and tearing through the sun.
There wasn’t an air conditioner in the maintenance house at Ridgeview. So, most mornings, if you were pulling along the gravel path leading up to the old brick place that looked like it’d been dug up from underground, you’d find the majority of the grounds crew smoking outside. That was unless one of the boys on the crew cobbled together some spare cash for a six of Cokes.
Marty Spade came through with the Cokes most often, and when he did, we’d all crowd around in a dark corner of the living room, passing bottles around, trying not to be the first to knock out from the heat.
Then you had Francis McKinney. If you’d offer him a Coke, he’d take a swig and spit it back in your face, and there wasn’t nothing no one would do about it neither. There was a set of old oak trees on the side porch, and whenever the sun got real big and bold, you could find Francis drinking beers under that shade. If he sought out shade for relief, nobody would’ve known.
It could’ve been 150 degrees, it wouldn’t have mattered a flea’s worth to Francis McKinney. Eventually every morning he’d come plowing on in through the maintenance house, a thick red and green flannel stretched over his shoulders, the top three buttons unhooked, and the sleeves rolled up and kept in place with sweat. That wild black mane of his would glisten like grease, clinging to his rosy cheeks and pale forehead. When he would trudge on in, those feet of his would just about snap the floorboard; you could hear the wood screaming and crying with every step he took.
One morning he came in, and you could smell the whiskey and stale beer spilling off his breath and clothes. He was damn near seven feet tall, and when he stopped at the entrance to the living room to take note of us, not an inch of his body trembled like a drunk’s. Scowling at the Cokes, he pulled one of those small green beer bottles with the black label on it from his back pocket.
Then Teddy Mills, always prodding, joked: “Beer at six in the morning, McKinney?”
“Bugger off,” Francis returned, knocking back half the bottle in one harsh swig. Staying in the same place, then, he closed his eyes and let his head rock back. That thick frame of his swayed back and forth, a strange smile crossing his face, leaving us uneasy. It was as if an unknown breeze was washing over him and combing through that great black mane of his.
“You like dark beer, McKinney?” this kid Callaghan asked, trying to ease the tension that spread through the room like humidity. Francis worried at the black label, still smiling.
“O aye,” he said. “But don’t you go worrying your little head over it. You won’t find it in any these shite pubs around here.” He held the bottle high above his face and let the rest pour down his throat and rinse all over his beard. We were content to let Francis leave with that. All of us, that is, except Teddy.
“Guinness tastes like piss, McKinney.”
Now I don’t reckon Francis was trying to miss Teddy’s skull when he spiked that beer across the room. But the empty bottle whistled over our heads, tearing through the thick morning air like it was nothing but butter, and smacking hard against the wall nothing but an inch above Teddy’s head. As we watched him leave, shards of glass were beginning to run down the wall like blood.
We knew the Cokes would be gone by the time we finished the morning’s work, but there was still running water in the sink, even if it tasted like sulfur and made us retch. Callaghan was the first one to reach the door, but when he went to slam his way through, he staggered back instead.
“The son ‘bitch locked it,” he wheezed, doubling over.
“Where is he?” I turned around and looked at the rest of the boys. “Where’s Martin?” No one answered.
Most of them were either panting on the ground like dogs or slumped against the dumpster. Temperatures did no good defining how hot it was. Only actions. For me, it was stumbling like a drunk over to the hose on the side porch, and collapsing in the dirt. The water smelled like eggs and felt like oil on my skin. I would’ve choked on it, and gladly too, if I hadn’t seen Martin coming up first.
Once inside I breezed by Callaghan, who’d just about dove head first into the sink, and I sprawled out atop the pick-nick table like a drunk. Splinters began to gather on the underbellies of my arms like a hundred little fire ants, but I couldn’t bring myself to move much more than an inch.
Only when Martin reappeared with his shotgun, mumbling about this and about that, did I roll over on my side.
“More coyotes?” I asked.
“I’m gonna skin the rat and burn his feathers,” he hissed.
“The swan?” I sat up and rubbed my eyes raw. “He kill something else?”
“Damn right. Because of that bastard, I had to drag two dead swans from the pond on number eight just now. I got their stink all over me.”
“Think it was the swan that killed the coyote?”
“And about a dozen geese, the dirty bastard.”
“Why would a swan go killing other swans?” Callaghan mumbled to himself.
“Who gives two shits,” Martin barked at him, spilling bullets everywhere. “It needs to be plucked right outta the sky. That’s all.”
I had assumed he’d left the house but realized otherwise when I heard his snarl pick back up at the door.
“Hey now,” I heard him bark. “Take your goddamn hands off me!” I sat for a moment and listened to something like two raccoons scuffling through a dumpster – then, splitting wood and what sounded like air being squeezed out of a tire. Francis had our boss pinned against the doorframe, his hairy forearm tight to Martin’s throat. Glass surrounded them on the floor like empty shells, and in Francis’s other hand was Martin’s shotgun, held at arm’s length.
“You’re a right eejit, you think you’re going anywhere near that bird,” Francis whispered. Even holding Martin up off his feet, Francis still seemed to be peering down at him. With his back to us, all we could see were his shoulder blades moving in and out, in and out, breathing like two beating wings of his own. Martin refused to give in easily, though, spitting a weak wad of tobacco juice on Francis’s forearm.
“Consider this, boss,” Francis growled, raising Martin window frame by window frame until their eyes met. “You don’t go nowhere near that bird, and maybe I don’t beat you raw with this shotgun of yours. Maybe I don’t shove it down your throat and play with your tonsils until I get bored. And maybe, just maybe, I don’t stick it up your rotten growler and work you like a fucking puppet.”
With that he dropped our boss to the floor like a sack of mulch. Martin sprawled out on his belly, clutching at his chest and throat, and coughing up tobacco juice and blood all over the floor.
Francis tossed the shotgun on the counter to his left, opened the door, and stepped over Martin. Before he went on his way, though, he turned and looked down at him. The sweat in his hair and beard had dried into sharp thickets, and had begun to sprout from his face like a black rose bush.
“Hold on to the gun, boss,” he smiled, his teeth sort of bleached against his beard. “Entertain me.”
The next morning met us like a pack of hounds at the gate, jumping and biting with the taste of our blood on their lips. I had been put on bunker duty, and after that I was to join Pete and Carl in cleaning up all the tee boxes before the 8 o’clock tee times. The whole morning, though, all I could think of was Francis and that swan everybody’d been jawing about. Every pond I came across, I stared at the life that was in it. Which swan was it, I wondered. Was he even here, anymore? Had he fled, like a human would have, or was there no shame in what he’d done?
Every bunker I raked, I couldn’t help myself from raking out two great wings in the sand. Something about them called to me; there was something there. I just didn’t know what. Francis must’ve known, I figured. He was set to rip Martin’s entrails out the morning before. Just to save some dirty animal?
When 7:30 rolled around and I went looking for Pete and Carl, I found myself, it seemed, to be the only man on the course – not a soul on the whole front nine. At first glance of the crowd stirring like a mirage under the sun on number eleven, I expected to see something like another dead coyote. Sammy Wilkes met me halfway.
“I watched the whole thing,” he whispered, all out of breath like he’d just came back from Vietnam. Sammy would have you believe he had, too. “There ain’t nothing I coulda done. Nothing nobody coulda done.”
The man Sammy was talking about wasn’t dead. It’s just that half his jaw had been missed from the rest of his face. He was a golfer, and he’d simply been laying on his back like a dead fish, dragged from the pond and gutted, choking on his own blood like some drunk on a little spittle. I kept hearing Francis’ name being tossed about. One of the golfers was saying how he watched him do it, watched Francis rip that man’s face in half.
“Did he run away?” I asked Sammy. “Francis. Did he split?”
“Nah,” Johnny Left Foot shouted to me. “He’s just over there on number fourteen watering the green.” We all looked to where Johnny was pointing, and sure as the sun, there Francis was, silhouetted by the stream of water he was spraying.
George, who’d been supervising that morning, since Martin was off, said that there wasn’t any sense in firing Francis right then and there. He peered up to a sun that seemed to grow with every heartbeat.
“I don’t figure the sun’s gonna stop shining since this man here is missing half his face,” he said. “I’ll let Martin get rid of the bastard in the morning. Ain’t my business, ain’t my problem, no sir.”
One of the boys said the golfer looked about as dead as dirt and hawked a wad of tobacco juice on the fairway, like a period to the man’s life. If you ask me, I think he looked something like a peach – a rotten one, with a big old bite taken out of it. His face, all red and mushy and bruised, sunk down into the ground like heavy dew in the early morning.
“You see how this chump got here like this?” Sammy chirped.
“Right over there.” He pointed on over to the green, where some homeowners from the course were beginning to flock. “That’s where I was, with Johnny Left Foot and we’re changing the flags on the greens with little Red, White and Blue ones, you know, for the Independence Day tournament coming up. So there we are and there’s McKinney. He’s on eleven with us, watering the green, minding his own damn business as usual. And all of a sudden this little bastard, this piece of work right here laying on the ground, sprouts up from the fairway like a dirty little mushroom. And he’s screaming and he’s hollering and he’s waving that little four inch club of his in the air like he thinks he’s gonna do something with it.
“‘Get your asses off my goddamn green,’ he’s yelling at the three of us. ‘Let me hit my damn ball.’ So me and Johnny waltz on off, minding our Ps and Qs. Francis though – he ain’t moving so fast. You know how he’s a big old slug when he don’t feel like being much else. But all the while, this golfer is forming up like he thinks he’s gonna tee off or some shit.
“And then it all happened so fast. Francis is lugging his hose on off the green when, BOOM, a ball jumps up from the fairway and bites him in the belly.”
At this point, Sammy latches onto my arm, something profound and dirty stuck in his eyes.
“I tell you, Tommy – my God. Francis, he just about ripped that hose of his in half. It was like he was storming the beaches or something. He looked like a big old steam engine ‘bout to pop! I didn’t think that son ‘bitch could move as fast as he did right there, but I tell you he was something like a racehorse, his big old paws chugging alongside his body and leaving holes in the fairway and green. One of those paws smashed over this chump’s head like a friggin’ bottle of whiskey. Once he dropped, Francis went ahead and beat his face damn near flat. He didn’t stop there either, no sir. Nuh-uh. He went on and pried open this golfer’s mouth until the hinges snapped. The sound of it – oh, Tom. It sounded like a skull cracking. Well, at least what I think a skull cracking would sound like; sort of like a great big oak tree snapping in a storm. This here chump ain’t no oak tree though.”
At that point in Sammy’s tale, my mind had moved to the pond. There was one between eleven and fourteen that turned and stretched alongside twelve and thirteen; a great spread of water that ran for a few hundred feet or so, where the swans would flock to on scorchers like this one. Looking at them, I wondered where he was, the great swan killer. I had imagined him stretching the width of the pond, an immense wingspan, making waves and giving orders like the Captain of the Seas, the General of the Pond.
And then there was Francis, reeling in his hose and curling it over his shoulder. Sure, I wasn’t there to see it; I’ll always know that to be the cruel truth. But Sammy didn’t have the right of it. This wasn’t the result of some big mouth golfer, neither was it the fault of the heat. It had to have been something else. There had to have been something more that had caused Francis McKinney to beat a man half to death.
The rest of that morning we started placing bets on whether or not Francis would be canned in the midst of a heat wave. We figured he’d be arrested first. The police had come that same day. Not much amounted to it, though. Francis wasn’t anywhere around when they showed up, and after about ten minutes of melting under the sun, one officer asked the other if he felt like getting a drink and coming back another time. They agreed and dissolved into the blinding light of parking lot.
The next morning, as my truck rambled on down the gravel driveway to the maintenance house, I was shocked to find nobody smoking a morning cigarette out on the porch. There hadn’t been anybody in the house, neither. I went on ahead and clocked in, grabbed a couple Cokes, and headed on over to the clubhouse.
I hadn’t seen anybody on the course until I reached number two and found a couple of the boys – I think it might have been Carl and Johnny Chambers – bent over in the bushes near the parking lot, spewing all over themselves. I thought about helping but, no more than ten feet away from them, the smell hit me like a sucker punch.
Martin stepped out from behind the bushes, coffee in hand, cigarette in mouth, and a thin smile stretching out his lips. He waved me on over.
The blood had reached Francis’s boots by the time Martin had stumbled over his body that morning. His jeans, both thick with sweat and blood, had dried to a semi-hard paste since the sun had come up. Martin said he’d just been lying there at the curb, stinking and stewing and rotting like soft meat under the July sun.
And just like that, it seemed like a curtain had been raised. Before, it had seemed peculiar to me how the three men who’d been with that golfer hadn’t tried to stop the cops from leaving without Francis. Looking down at the body, a golf club sticking out of his belly, it all made quite a bit of sense.
You could tell how much time they spent on his face, beating him damn near inside out with their golf clubs until his eyes slid on down below his lips like soggy old eggs on a skillet. And if that wasn’t enough for the score, they went on ahead and opened his big belly up all over the parking lot. They killed Francis McKinney that night. Right there in the parking lot of the Ridgeview Golf Course.
Looking down at him, though, his face boiling like stew, his once pale and hairy belly red from both blood and sunburn, I felt something not a whole lot akin to fear. Actually, it was a smile. It was a small smile that crept along my face like a dirty little worm.
When Darcy Little, a waitress in the clubhouse dining room, and at the moment, the only person who seemed to be crying, saw me smile, she screamed through all her snot, “Tommy Donne! Why on God’s earth are you smiling?” My eyes still on Francis, I caught myself telling the truth.
“Because the men that did this must have had so much love in their hearts.” Darcy didn’t seem to care for my answer a whole lot. She threw a half-peeled banana she’d been clutching onto at me, which only bounced off my arm and down into the blood. I’m not sure if she’d been trying to get away from the sight of Francis or me, but she ran damn near the length of the parking lot to do it.
Sure, I guess I shouldn’t have said that to Darcy. But being raised a good Christian and all I just couldn’t help but tell the truth. And that’s what it was: the God’s-honest truth.
I was only a boy, just nineteen years old, and at that moment, I’d never been more in awe. Love never seemed to me something visible, something you could reach out and grab. But looking down at Francis’ body, I swear I saw love run in currents of blood. At the time, I wondered if I would ever feel something like that. And just as the thought crossed my mind, my smile crinkled like paper under the sun’s burning fire, and I felt a strange emptiness that would, for the next couple months, go on to spread in me like a cancer.
For the rest of that summer in 75, some of us had thought Francis McKinney’s ghost haunted the Ridgeview Golf Course. We may have been right.
One particular morning, just after the fourth of July, I was back in the maintenance house clocking in for the day, when I stopped for a Coke down in the cellar. Digging through the cooler, though, I stumbled over a familiar looking six-pack of beer with three bottles missing from it. Those little round green bottles with the black label. I picked one from the pack and held it there at arms length, examining it like a dinosaur fossil, wondering at the foreign name on the label and letting the cold glass cool my hand.
I took only one of the beers, stuffing it in my back pocket, and left the rest in the cooler. I then stopped at the clubhouse where I found Scottie and Danny the cook behind the bar, pouring from the draft.
“For you?” Scottie asked me, holding up a small plastic cup of whatever they had on draft that day.
“Boss ain’t here yet?”
“Nah, not yet, so quick, drink up.”
“I got one already, maybe later.” I joined them behind the bar to pour Francis’s beer into one of the cups.
It wasn’t until I finished pouring my beer that I looked up and saw Darcy Little sitting all by herself at the end of the bar, wiping her face with a napkin. She didn’t look a whole lot different than she had the morning we found Francis. I remember noticing that she wasn’t wearing any makeup. Strange enough, she didn’t look all that bad without it. There weren’t any murky streaks running down her face from all the crying. And for that, I was most grateful. Those lines would’ve felt like daggers in my sides for what I’d said to her.
“What’s with Darcy?” I whispered.
“Oh her?” Danny didn’t mind his voice like I had. “Hell, who knows? Probably the swan this time.”
“You didn’t hear? A few more swans sprung up dead last week, and Wilson’s saying he saw one of them swans do all of it.” Danny made a gun with his forefinger and thumb and added: “So they gonna – click – poach the fucker.”
“I’ve seen the one they’re talking about,” Scottie said. “He’s a big boy. Tear your mug right off.”
“People sayin’ he’s crazy or something. Wanna put him down, you know snuff him out, but some front office bitch ain’t having it.” Danny glanced over to where Darcy was pretending not to hear. “Is that it, little Darcy? Are you sad they gonna strangle that beast?”
Darcy picked up her purse and wiped at her face once more. “Prick,” she said, looking right at Danny and trying to hold herself together. Before she went running, though, she glared at me for a good and hard second. And for that moment, I felt more ashamed of myself than ever for saying what I had to her that morning, ashamed and dirty, like I needed to take a shower just to rinse that look off of my body.
After she was gone, none of us said a word there for a few moments until Danny stirred up something clever.
I didn’t stay long in the clubhouse after that. Instead I headed for number six to dig up a broken sprinkler on the fairway. The piece of junk had been busted a whole week and nobody had noticed until a big patch of rusty looking grass popped up on the fairway, and Martin just about shit. Once I found it, I went ahead and started digging at the thing, as much as I could anyhow, what with the ground all dry and stubborn like an old bone.
The whole time I was digging, I’d been facing the pond that was off to the side of the fairway. Wondering where the swans were all hiding, that old saying came to mind, the one where swans mate for life. If that was true, then, what about the lady swan who had a murderer for a husband? Was he still capable of being loved? At the time, I wondered if she could’ve been the cause of all these murders. Was it possible that he’d just been protecting her or maybe some of his baby swans? Everybody had just figured he was crazy. It’s the heat, they’d say, it’s getting to everybody.
For me, though, that idea was just too tough a pill to swallow. He was doing it for something; I guess the only question was whether or not he was doing it for someone.
I’d dropped the shovel and knelt down to unscrew the top of the sprinkler, when Sammy lumbered up on one of the fairway mowers. He hopped down and came my way with bright July smile and some tobacco tucked behind his lip.
“That there’s a pretty patch of brown grass you got growing,” he shouted over the noise of the machine he’d left in neutral. “How you get it to look so pretty?”
“Ask Martin,” I said, standing up with the dead sprinkler in hand. “I bet he’d have an answer for you.”
“Haw! I don’t think I’d like it a whole lot! What do ya got there?”
“Junk. Crap. Lemme get a pinch.”
He handed over his Skoal tin, adding, “Well I guess ya better go on and replace it before this grass here goes white.”
Tossing the tin back to him, I bent back down to pick up the new sprinkler. I was ready to ask Sammy if some of the boys were going for beers after work again, but the sound of screams grabbed at the hairs on the back of my neck and spun me around. A pack of them, so shrill and violent that they were heard over the rumbling engine of the mower, went up with a flutter from the hill that led down to the pond. Then two shadows overhead, one of them a great titan of a presence. Dripping beads of tainted water, they flapped in unison for the sun, gone in a heartbeat. We stood there, still and silent, as a hushed rush of black and white and brown feathers descended upon the hill like snow in July; dirty, beautiful snow.
The grass was dry, and with each step it crunched under our stained boots. Feathers, still falling, landed on our shoulders and coated us in what I could only assume was death. A moment later we were at the top of the hill, standing right in it: feathers of all colors, splashed with red, leaving behind a trail that led to one slaughtered goose at the base of the pond. We didn’t move any closer than that. Sammy only looked on for a moment or two before turning back around and saying over his shoulder that we’d missed him.
“Missed what?” I asked, stupidly. It was as clear as the sky; I simply didn’t want to admit it.
“That was him,” he shouted over the thunder of the mower and the haunting cries of geese. “That was his shadow up in the sky.”
I tried to look back to where they’d flown. As hard as I squinted, though, my eyes only reddened like the tips of two cigarettes under the pulsating sun. And at that moment, I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d never get the same chance again.
Everybody had cut out early that morning and headed to the bar. I’d stayed back though. After what I’d seen that morning, or hadn’t seen, I guess, I wasn’t in the drinking or story-telling mood. It seemed like I was the only one who hadn’t witnessed this great white beast at his work. Just about everybody knew something about him, from Martin to Scottie to Wilson and, if Danny had been right, even Darcy Little.
Little Darcy. She’d left work early that day too. Only minutes after the boys snuck out to the bar, I’d been making my way across the parking lot, heading to number eight, when I noticed her walking toward that sad little clunker of hers. It was just as busted as she was, it seemed: chipped, dirty paint, and a cracked taillight. And seeing her like this again, I felt as if I should have said something – hell, at least an apology.
It had been sprinkling earlier that day, and even though the heat had dried everything up and left us all sticky, Darcy had still been wearing a pair of rubber rain boots. On the boots were these little yellow suns and blue moons with smiley faces. They must have been a size or two too big for her. She was taking every step like she was scared a hole was going to open in the parking lot and swallow her up.
It was either something bold or just plain dumb of me that decided to reach for her hand. I had only wanted to help her to the car. Just as my finger grazed hers, though, she spun around so violently that I’m sure we both feared she would fall. Her cheeks were flushed, all puffed up and red from crying the entire morning, and the look on her face tasted like spoiled meat. Somehow it managed to leave me feeling even lower than the look she shot me before in the clubhouse.
“Get away from me, Tommy, you freak!” She fumbled through her keys while I just stood there like a dumb old deer caught in her headlights. Then, the sounds of the gears on her car grinding and screaming, rubber burning and mutilating itself against the searing blacktop, just to get away from me as fast as possible.
There had been another attack that same week in the string of what was becoming the summer of the swan. This time it was a golfer who found himself caught in the black and orange bill of the beast. He swore that he had only been trying to chip his ball off the bank of the water on number sixteen. Silly bastard must have paid no mind to the great white warship thrashing about in the pond.
Stan Douglass had been caddying for the guy, and he said that the bird just about rocketed from the water and mounted the golfer like a lion would a zebra. I saw the golfer back at the clubhouse just before the ambulance arrived; one of his eyes had been torn clean out of his face and his arm looked like a beaten salami, mangled and bloody and raw, dangling out of its socket.
Soon after, the course erupted with furious golfers who might as well have dropped their clubs and picked up pitchforks, thinking they were going to hunt down this animal and roast him on a pike. To calm what was bound to turn into a summer heat riot, Ridgeview called upon a visitor. I hadn’t been there to see him, but Billy the bartender told me that the man who came through the doors of the clubhouse wore a black business suit and carried a briefcase.
Wilson, Martin, and Matt Kennedy, the general manager of the course, met him at the bar. The man introduced himself to the others and shook both Matt’s and Wilson’s hands. When he turned to greet Martin, he was ignored. Instead, Martin pulled a bag of bar nuts out of a drawer and ripped it open with his spiked yellow teeth.
His face was carved of stone, with cold drawn skin and daunting blue eyes, ones so pale, Martin would later say, they almost looked white. Two little itty, bitty white eyes, just like the devil, he had told us. And when Callaghan said he thought the devil’s eyes were black or red or something, Martin told him to go fuck himself, that he was telling the story.
Really, Martin just had his balls all twisted up because this man was here to do his job. The second that upper management gave the grounds crew the go ahead to kill the swan, Martin had been all charged up to shoot down the beast and hold him up high like some kind of trophy. However, Matt and Wilson worried over the idea of an employee stalking the course with a loaded shotgun, most of all Martin. They decided to hire a professional, or at least that’s what people took to calling him. We never really found out what the hell he was. He could’ve been an Audubon. He could’ve been a hit man. He could’ve been the devil. Whatever he was, Matt and Wilson were sure of him.
Martin wasn’t. He would tell you that the man had a gun tucked in his breeches and actually threatened Matt at one point in the conversation over payment. When Billy denied this, I think I remember Martin smashing his beer on the table, and storming out of the bar, calling Billy a faggot, a liar, and even a thief at one point. According to Billy, the man hardly said a word, other than that he would have the job good and done in a week.
The only remark he made worth hearing was said to Martin. Billy had always been a rather boring bastard, even when he had a story worth listening to. He didn’t paint the best picture of the man in the business suit, but even today I can still imagine him turning to Martin, hands clasping before his gaunt belly like a priest. His lanky frame and neck craning over Martin like some devilish giraffe. His face bruised with shadows, barely revealing those pale eyes of his.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” he whispered to Martin. “Some day you may just lose your breath.” To this, Martin spit a mouth full of shells and tobacco at the bar, and cursed the man in the business suit all the way to the door. Afterwards, he pointed out to Matt and Wilson how the man did not blink. Not even once.
Three days had gone by in the last week of July when the temperature averaged 102 degrees. Stepping outside in the mornings, the humidity felt like wearing a twenty-pound leather suit that was sopping wet. So a few of us hid in the cellar after clocking in one morning, and waited for Martin and Wilson to head onto the course with the rest of the crew.
We found more of those green bottled beers in the cooler. None of us bothered asking who had been drinking them. It wasn’t important. Somebody kept them down there, though, because there had been a few empties strewn across the floor of the cellar, and from time to time we even found them stashed in the bushes where Francis used to drink.
We drank the beer quietly, welcomed the cool dark air, and listened to one another trade stories about the man in the business suit. Teddy had seen him most often and will tell you that the man wore the same suit every day: a black jacket; black pants; black shiny shoes; a clean white shirt tucked in; and a thin black tie that never seemed to flap from his belly. And it didn’t matter that he did all his work in the sun neither. His bleached skin never turned red, never burnt under the all-powerful sun.
If you listened to Pete, you’d find out that the man wrote down notes in a little black book he kept in a briefcase he carried around. Sometimes it even seemed like he would be sketching something.
Sammy mentioned how the man never carried a gun.
“Ain’t he supposed to shoot the bird?” he asked us. “All he’s doin’ is drawin’ and being creepy, you ask me.”
“I figure Martin’ll just do it himself,” Teddy said. “He’s been aching to get him all on his own.”
I would’ve added my two cents but all I could think of, or dwell on really, was Darcy Little. Talking about the swan always made me think back on her and wonder if that was really what had been making her so sad all summer. She hadn’t been around much lately. More and more she would be asking for time off or calling in sick. The few times I saw her in July she was on green-to-green duty, where she’d basically drag a wagon filled with beers and Cokes and snacks from hole to hole, selling it to golfers.
“Anybody still upset about them killing the swan?” I asked the boys. Before they could answer, though, the door to the cellar opened at the top of the stairs. We all three sat frozen, hoping it was just one of the boys coming down for a drink and not Martin. But when no steps came, Teddy set his beer down and stood up to see across the room better.
I don’t recall what it was specifically that got me hustling up those stairs; whether it was that chilling rush of a breeze that blew sleet through my blood, or the sound of Pete dropping his bottle on the concrete, shattering everywhere, or the lid to the cooler slamming shut with such a force that it was as if somebody didn’t want us nosing through it. I suppose it didn’t make much of a difference. All four of us crammed together at the top of the stairs, trying to squeeze our way through and out forever.
You couldn’t have paid any one of us enough money to go back into the cellar again that summer. The door stayed shut and whoever it was that kept buying that beer, finally had it all to themselves.
When the man in the business suit had first come to the Ridgeview, he promised results within a week. As the days rolled by, though, and the sun grew and grew, he never once raised a gun to a swan, hadn’t singled one out, and as far as we could tell, he reported to no one. Not even Matt or Wilson knew what he kept in that little black book of his.
On his sixth day, the high temperature was 106 degrees. Wilson stopped us that morning before we headed out and said that our day would be cut short; we were to be off of the course and out of the sun by eleven at the latest, before the temperature crept too high.
I was one of the four boys watering the back nine, so I headed with my hose to number eleven. On the walk, I had to stop twice, wiping the sweat from my brow, and finishing the Coke I kept in my back pocket. I let the hose begin to drag behind me, unable to bear its weight on either shoulder anymore. The rattle of the metal head on the concrete path screamed like a thousands lobsters cramped in a boiling pot, and rang through my skull like incessant bells, crippling and tolling me into delirium.
The boots I’d been wearing that morning had filled with sweat already, and every step I took became a heavier task. I continued to switch hands for lugging the hose. It felt like I was wearing the sun for a hat, one that slowly grew larger with every step, until it covered my whole body, enclosing me and trapping me like a hotbox not big enough for a child, made from metal, hugging and searing me at the arms and legs.
The smack of the rough path on my palms and knees must have jarred me awake. I let go of the hose and rolled on my back, entirely expecting to die under the sun that was close enough to kiss me goodbye.
The next time I opened my eyes, I found myself slouched in a stool, my back against the wall, with Sammy and Wilson shoving handfuls of ice down my pants. It took me a second to feel it, but when I did, the nice change in temperature turned to blinding pain, and I shoved them off, falling from the stool, and shaking the ice out the bottoms of my jeans.
“Nicely done, kid,” Wilson laughed, slapping Sammy on the shoulder and smiling at me. “Tom, you’re done for the day, you got it? You can sit here in the cool air as long as you like but don’t you dare step back outside unless you’re getting in your truck and going on home. Hear?”
I nodded, sliding down the wall to sit back on the ground. Sammy brought me a couple of warm Cokes before heading back out. After about fifteen or so minutes of lounging around, I was able to stand on my own. I ventured over to the sink where I found the bag of ice Wilson must have brought in for me. It had just about completely melted and was slouching over the counter. I ripped it open and let the lukewarm water pour over my hair and face and neck. After nearly drowning myself there, I struggled up on to the counter and laid my head against the window, waiting for just one little breeze to kiss the glass and cool my face down.
I was only out for a few moments before a soft rustling brought me around. Looking to the door I saw nobody. Before I could fall back asleep, though, out of the corner of my eye, a blinding white rush crashed into the window, smacking my face through the glass, and sprawling me first all over the counter and then off of it completely.
He sat before the window, violently flapping back at me. His gorgeous, magnificent, white wings shot feathers like bullets that clouded the sun. And then another, a smaller one, lean and stunning and calm, flew in behind and perched right alongside him. They stared at me through the foggy glass, him beating ruthlessly against the concrete, challenging me, her elegance relaxing under his power, his valor, his love. He picked up to the sky with one last beat, and with him so did the wind, which breathed into me through the cracks his body had left in the window. Once she followed, they were off.
I can’t explain to you in all honesty why I did what I did next; maybe I was just down right delirious. But by the time I crashed through the front door and back into the sun, tearing through that dripping wet leather suit, I could still make out their white bodies in the sky, dancing just over the number two green. And so I ran. I ran across the little bridge connecting two and three and down the path that took me all the way to six. I ran through the brown and yellow fairway on seven, and into the woods to the right of the clubhouse. There, one of them vanished under the blanket of the sun while the other dropped to the ground, sprinting on foot just a few steps ahead of me.
He wobbled, pounding his wings on both sides as if he couldn’t quite make it back to the air. Up a set of stairs and into the kitchen of the clubhouse, we roared. We smashed our way down the cook’s line, knocking into the stoves and the tables and breaking every dirty dish and glass, through the door and into the dining room. I continued to trip over my feet, reaching for anything around me to keep my balance as the great white beast made his way into the hall leading to the toilets. Without thinking, completely mad and raving over this swan, I followed, ramming through the door and into the ladies restroom.
The impact of the strong wooden door sent me back to my knees, begging for air yet again, clutching at the wall first for support and then down at my chest. I had to rip the collar of my drenched shirt open just so my skin could breath, but it didn’t do a whole lot. Instead I simply collapsed back to the floor, with the feeling of the sun’s residue caking my arms and face. I tried to breath through my nose but just kept resulting to gasps. He was gone.
And then a voice – one so soft, it could’ve come from a dove.
“Who’s there?” it cooed.
“Help,” I managed. “Please. Help.”
“Who is that? There’s no men allowed in here, go away, please.” She seemed desperate, but all I could do was plead along with her, choking on breaths. After a time of pitiful pleas from both sides, there at last came the lovely sound of a lock being turned. Two small white shoes showed under the door, and for a moment I actually felt a full breath pass through me. That was until I saw the legs and body and face that came with those white shoes and they saw me, and for a minute there I felt it a much better choice to just lie back, still and quiet, until I was allowed to die.
“Tommy Donne, what are you doing?” Darcy choked. “Leave, now! What is the matter with you? Go or I’ll have you fired, I can do that! And arrested! A pervert! You’re a pervert, Tommy Donne!” She started for the door, but I flopped onto my side and blocked her way. She jerked back with her purse covering her face and threatened to scream.
“No, please,” I insisted. “Please, just help. Just some water.”
“No, go away! I’m leaving, okay, just let me leave.”
“Just a little water, please.” Darcy took a step back and lowered her purse down to her chest. She studied me wearily, her cheeks red and wet, but clean again of any streaky makeup. Her shoelaces were untied and draped across the floor where she stood, and her lips remained parted even when she didn’t speak – clean, cracked lips.
“If I give you some water, then you have to let me go. You need to leave me alone and let me go, okay?” I nodded and lowered my hand. She filled up a small paper cup with water and set it on the floor a foot or two away from me. I washed it down, and though she protested each time, she would go on to pour me three more cups. When I found my breath, I managed to ask her if she knew where the swan had run to.
“Swan? What’s the matter with you, Tommy?” I immediately felt stupid for asking the question. Even to me, it didn’t make sense. Of course it hadn’t.
As I sat there, panting like a dying dog, Darcy eased up. For some reason or another I acknowledged that she hadn’t been wearing any makeup, and she nervously started rummaging through her purse for some of it, assuring me that she was going to put it on at some point. I was about to say she was fine, but while she was pulling out a small mirror, a glimmer came from her purse and then a soft clink on the ground by my feet – a small green bottle cap. I snatched it up before she could find where it’d fallen. The word on the cap was in a different language, and it wasn’t until she plucked it from my hand that the familiar word jogged my memory.
“Francis?” She stopped worrying at her face and stared blankly into the small mirror. “You and Francis? That’s what you’ve been crying over this whole summer. Francis. You two were…”
“Nothing! We were nothing that concerns you, Tommy Donne. It’s none of your business.”
“No, sure, I just mean to say I never saw you two together,” I went on, ignoring her. “I never heard you mention him. Not even after he attacked that golfer.”
“He didn’t attack anyone!” I stopped thinking for a moment and looked at her carefully, wondering if, out of the two of us, I wouldn’t turn out to be the crazy one. “Okay, yes he did, but it wasn’t his fault. He was protecting me!”
“You weren’t even there.”
“Yes I was! I was green-to-green that morning. I was there when the whole thing happened. I was waiting off to the side of the green when that golfer hit his ball. It was going to hit me, I swear! It was coming right at me and I didn’t know what to do but then there was Francis and he got in front of me and it hit him instead of me. He was just protecting me! That’s not a crime, is it! Tell me that’s not a crime!”
Over that summer and really even after it too, I’d heard just about a hundred different versions of the same event. Even though every story had its own little bits of flash and imagination while still staying true to the tale, Darcy’s was the only one to strike a cord. A cord so clear and obvious I couldn’t help but feel silly.
Looking up at her, tears stored in bundles at the surface, begging me to believe her, I couldn’t help but do just that. Some will think it was just the boy in me that believed her. They’ll say it was the sweat that’d collected at her chest, pinning that already tight club shirt snug against her body. They’ll say it was the white sundress all the waitresses were given that summer, the one that seemed to catch a breeze even in the dead weight humidity.
I know now that it wasn’t any of those things though. It was the absolute confession in her eyes, the unstable lips and knees, the clear and obvious fact that I’d been the only one that had heard this story. It was not a regular, being passed around that summer. It was Darcy Little, stripped of all drama and storytelling, all makeup and show
“I’m not saying he didn’t do anything,” she went on. “He did. I know he did. I’ve come to grips with that fact. But he did it because he loves me. Or loved me. Or he still does, geez I don’t know he was just protecting me. You have to believe that! Somebody has to believe that!” With that, she broke down and ran for the sink, doubling over and sobbing.
There was a time that I was too afraid to go to her, to reach out to her – afraid that she’d scream again, that she maybe still thought I was some freak. She didn’t run, though, when she saw my hand stretched out to her, all awkward, like a little tree branch drooping in the heat. In fact it made her smile; I swear, my hand just floating out there in space, a great big joke, it actually sparked something in her other than misery. And when I let go of that air, and dropped my hand back down to my side, by God she came over herself and took it in hers.
She held my hand and thanked me.
“Well, sure,” I muttered like a dope, searching for the right words, for any words really. “He was a good…a great guy – man. He was a great man.” It sounded dumb coming from my mouth. Even worse, it sounded like a lie. But what was I to say? I didn’t know for sure if Francis McKinney was a decent man or an evil one or if he’d ever done more than nearly beat a man to death for anybody to judge him by. I had to say it. As far from the truth as it may have been, I had to.
It was the first time that summer that I didn’t see Darcy Little crying or trembling. It was the first time I saw her smiling. And to see that again, I would’ve said the same thing a hundred times over without a moment’s pause or guilt.
It’s a tough thing. It’s tough to find and trace the borders of what love can justify. For some, you may never know until you’re forced to cross that border. More times than not, doing so might mean giving something up. But I get the feeling there’s certain men and women who, when they go over that line, they’ll give up just about anything to make sure those close to them stay close to them.
The seventh day of the man in the business suit had come. That morning, Martin came in roaring, making his lack of any patience clearer than ever. It was July 30th, 1975. The temperature had, at last, dropped just below 100 degrees, and every once in a while you could even feel some semblance of a breeze in the air. We took anything we could get and knew that our patience had paid off. Martin on the other hand hadn’t been so sure.
After the seventh day, Wilson would go on to tell us that Martin came to work that morning and busted into Matt’s office with his shotgun and a brown paper bag full of bullets.
“No!” Matt insisted as they both came barreling in. “Out with the both of you, if you’re going to be waving that thing around.”
“It’s been a week, Matt,” Martin said.
“Seven days have come and this day will be gone soon enough. Fuck that white-eyed man. Fuck him in the ass! Let me kill this son ‘bitch myself, I bet you it won’t take me a whole damn year to do it neither. All I need is one bullet, I’ll pick the sucker right outta the sky, you just gimme the go ahead, Matt. You just go on and gimme the go ahead.”
“Put down the gun, Martin.”
“Come on lets go do it right now,” he kept on. “That nut is just out there drawing pictures in his little diary. He draws pictures you know that, Matt? That’s what you’re paying this man to do: draw in his little coloring book like a child and threaten me like a devil!”
“How about we just take this outside, how’s that sound, boys,” Wilson tried.
“I ain’t going nowhere till Matt gives the go ahead. I want the go ahead, you best gimme it.”
“Alright, Martin, alright,” Matt said.
“Alright you got the go ahead, Martin?”
“Alright, we will go outside and find the swan together and go from there.”
Martin chewed this over with a handful of sunflower seeds before spitting and nodding approval. He nodded his whole way out the door and past Darcy and myself. We’d been hiding beers under the bar-top and talking with Billy and Scottie and Sammy. Martin huffed on by us like a bear, roaring his way through the double doors and onto the patio of the clubhouse. We picked up after him, Matt, and Wilson, like we were following them into the unforgiving heart of a riot.
Outside Martin pulled up at the top of the steps where he was met by the man in the business suit, clad in black, clean and clear of any trace of the sun’s effort. He stopped before us, bleached white skin and marble white eyes, hands weaving together at his waist, addressing his congregation.
“You,” Martin spit. “You still here? Ain’t finished your drawings yet?”
“We are at the end of our week, Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Wilson.”
“You betcha. And we at the end with you, buster,” Martin said.
“I have the target.”
“You have the swan? Dead?” Matt leaned forward.
“Not dead,” he answered. “Ready. Waiting for us.”
“This man here is a liar!” Martin screamed, choking on a cigarette and then hacking the butt at the man’s shoes. “Get outta my way so I can gun down this bird.”
“Martin,” Matt said. We all waited while he thought this over, regarding Martin and his gun timidly, then the man in the business suit, calm and composed and dry in the combustible heat. “We’ve already paid this man. And I’d prefer to get our money’s worth.” The man in the business suit nodded back to Matt and turned, knowing we’d all follow.
Martin was not so quick. He slammed the butt of his shotgun on the ground and called for us all to stop, barking and spitting in every direction.
“Matt, you get back here, we had a deal! You gave me the go ahead, Matt, goddamn-it!” Soon he followed as well, and we found ourselves all trying to keep up with the long sleek stride of the man in the business suit. He led us like some prophet, his little black book in hand.
We came to a clearing in the woods on number eleven that looked on to the base of the pond. In the water floated a gaggle of geese and a number of ducks. And at first, that was it. Then from around the hill overlooking the pond, they materialized. He sailed in, with her in tow, like the great warship that he was.
Martin spat and started riffling through his brown paper bag for a bullet. Matt urged him to put the gun away and Martin screamed back at him to fuck off. All around, the noises of squawking geese and splashing water competed with Darcy’s pleas to leave the swan alone. The great hulking bird clubbed at the water and hissed back at Martin and the gun and the geese and the wickedness of the man in the business suit who just stared on, deaf to the chaos.
Settling on a bullet, Martin loaded, cocked, and raised his gun to the bird, who then drew up from the water in one swift beat. Hovering there, above the pond, he bellowed threats over us like a challenged and pride-bruised king, beating bullets of water all about and watching us drown in them. His mate stretched out behind him, long and lustrous and secure. She knew it too as she joined him in the air, the two of them dripping of water, just as the first shot rang through the sky and screamed of fire and hatred.
None of us had seen the man in the business suit remove his gun or fire it, but we watched him stand there, unmoved, holding an empty chamber in his chalky hands. And then, the two great white figures moving, unblemished, in unison for the sun, snowing down on us a great white rush.