Game

Beating the Armadillo

1.

BAM!

The collision jarred Brian abruptly back to reality. He had been driving along, windows down on a warm spring day, thinking, inexplicably, of the ’85 Bears Super Bowl team and trying to recall lyrics from “The Super Bowl Shuffle” (specifically middle linebacker “Samurai” Mike Singletary’s part). So absorbed was Brian in this preposterous mental exercise that he didn’t notice the silver station wagon he was following had stopped to let a kid on a skateboard cross the street. Brian, oblivious, drove his Honda right into the rear end of the station wagon.

“GodDAMMIT!”

No one was hurt, thank god. They’d been traveling at a low rate of speed down a residential side street. But when Brian saw the hood of his car crinkled and dented in front of him, he let out a long low moan and brought his forehead down to rest on the steering wheel.

“Shit.”

Brian had just got his car back from the body shop two days ago. He’d paid $700 to have a kid in a greasy undershirt repair the front bumper and fix the numerous dents in his hood. With that $700, Brian had committed to driving his 11-year-old Honda (with over 150,000 horrible, torturous city miles on it) for another year, rather than buying himself a new(er) car. He had done so figuring if he spent $700 now and saved his money for another year, he’d be able to afford something nicer than he could buy now. Maybe even a new car. He had thought hard and planned much.

He was still forehead to steering wheel when the middle-aged man he'd rear-ended walked back to his driver-side window. “Are you alright?” the man asked him. He sounded neither angry nor aggravated, and instead seemed calm and genuinely concerned.

Brian raised his head to see a sweaty bald man in a wrinkled suit looking down at him. He wanted to strangle the man.

“I’m alright. Just … stupid.”

The amiable driver of the station wagon chuckled. Brian clenched his teeth. Both men knew this accident was all Brian’s fault, so both men knew Brian would be the one footing the bill for damages.

Neither car was too terribly cracked up, but it was enough. The whole time looking over the damage Brian was silently cursing his stupidity, scolding his wandering mind, furious with himself for not being a more skillful driver. The station wagon wasn’t that bad, but Brian would have to pay. The damage to Brian’s own shitty old Honda was confined primarily to what he had just forked over dough to repair. In fact, it was worse than what he just had fixed.

And the kicker, the thing that really stoked the inner rage and cranked up the hate machine, was that Brian was less than three blocks from home. Another ninety seconds without daydreaming and he’d have been pulling into his garage.

Phone numbers and business cards were exchanged. Brian was so choked with self-loathing he could barely speak. The man he hit, Walter Thompson, CPA, climbed back into his car, waved a friendly good-bye, and drove off.

Brian stood in the street watching the damaged rear-end of the station wagon disappear in the distance. Then he walked back to the front of his car and brought both fists down, hard, on the dented hood of his Honda. He repeated this several times, leaning over his car in full tantrum mode, swearing, yelling, foaming at the mouth, until his hands began to hurt.

He got back in the car, slammed the door and drove ninety seconds home. He pushed the button to raise the door, waited, then jerked his car into the garage, stomping on the gas pedal then pounding on the brakes. He turned off the engine and sat silently, two full minutes, hands locked in a white-knuckle death grip on the steering wheel. His breathing grew heavier through the nostrils, his jaw set and teeth clenched. His lips curled in rage.

In an instant the car door flung open and Brian leapt out. From the old cobwebbed golf bag in the corner of the garage a solid seven-iron was extracted. He turned, raised the golf club over his head with both hands, and brought it down heel first on the hood of his car producing a sharp “WHAK!” and a satisfying fist-sized dent. He could feel the vibrations from the blow through the shaft of the club into his fingers. He did it again. And again. He imagined he was summoning up his tension, anger, stupidity, bad luck, and releasing them all with each whack of the club.

The fifth time he brought the club down on the hood of the car he froze after impact, the sound of his angry blow ringing through the garage. He was suddenly overcome by a wave of memories. The garage, the car, his predicament all dissipated and he stood, hovering over the sad hood of his car, gripping the now slightly bent golf club in his right hand, engrossed in the sudden flood of information rolling back from the past.

2.

It was a sticky, juicy 86 degrees at nine o’clock in the morning. Bud Johnson was smoking a cigarette and lining up a long putt from the fringe for a birdie (not counting a mulligan off the tee) on the 12th green. His son-in-law, Mike Malone, was holding the pin, sweating from every pore in his body.

In the golf cart, gripping the steering wheel with two little hands, making racecar noises and pretending to drive, was five-year-old Brian Malone. This was his second time visiting his grandparents in Texas, though Brian had to rely on his parents for that information because he was only six months old the first time and, obviously, remembered nothing of it. This was Brian’s first time golfing, that had been confirmed by both parents, and though he wasn’t actually an active participant in the game, playing racecar with the golf cart was enough to keep him occupied.

“Would you tell that boy to be quiet, Mike, I’m puttin’ here,” Bud said aloud without looking up from his shot.

“Brian, quiet down while grandpa’s putting,” Mike told his son gently. This whole trip was absolutely torturous for Mike, and this morning, golf with his father-in-law, Bud, was the worst part of the torture. Bud had never liked Mike, and he made no secret of it, taking every opportunity to embarrass and harass his son-in-law. Bud had always hoped his only daughter, Katy, would settle down with a man like himself: a slap-ya-on-the-back, beer-drinking, joke-telling, easygoing former jock you could watch football with on Thanksgiving. Someone, perhaps finally, to be the son Bud always wanted.

Instead, his beautiful Katy went away to college and fell in love with the bookish, frail, sensitive, LIBERAL IRISH CATHOLIC FROM NEW YORK, Mike Malone. This never would have happened, Bud told himself and his wife time and time and time again, if Katy had gone to the University of Texas like he had wanted. Instead she went away to Northwestern, and was living in goddamn Chicago with a liberal New Yorker raising his grandson to be a goddamn liberal sissy.

Brian sat quietly in the golf cart watching his grandfather smoke and putt. He watched him swing the golf club, and watched the golf ball roll along the grass, stopping about half-way short of the hole. Then he watched his grandfather yell, “DAMMITT,” and throw his cigarette away in disgust. Brian laughed at his grandpa then returned his attention to the golf cart.

Brian was cranking the steering wheel around, pretending this time to be driving a police car in pursuit of bad guys, when something scary crept into his field of view.

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” Brian yelled at the top of his lungs and jumped up, standing on the seat of the cart. He pointed at the monster not five feet away. “DADDY!”

Mike heard his son scream and came running immediately. He chuckled when he found Brian pointing, terrified and amazed, at an armadillo.

“DADDY!” Brian called out again, growing a bit teary. He raised his arms toward his father wanting to be picked up and protected. Mike obliged his son and lifted him from the cart, hugging him and laughing.

“It’s ok, son,” Mike told Brian. He turned to the side so both he and Brian could see the animal. “It’s only an armadillo. He’s not going to hurt you. They’re harmless. See?”

“Armadillo?” the boy repeated in wonder as he looked down from his father’s arms at it. He watched the armadillo crawl along past the cart.

Bud, having three-putted in the meantime, took the opportunity to mark the hole a par while his son-in-law wasn’t looking, then walked up to join him. He didn’t care for the way Mike was coddling the boy.

“What’s happening here?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with the boy?”

“It’s an armadillo,” Mike told him. “Brian’s never seen one before.” Brian squirmed out of his father’s arms to get a level view of the armadillo. Since no one else seemed afraid he determined it was alright. But he held on to his father’s hand tight.

“Armadillo, eh?” said Bud seriously, eyeballing the creature. “Goddamn armadillos. They’re worse than rats. They ruin the courses.” He put the putter back in his bag on the golf cart, then pulled out one of his irons. A serious seven-iron. He took a few steps toward the armadillo.

“You’re supposed to kill ‘em when ya see ‘em.”

Bud brought the iron up above his head, then down, heel first, directly on the armadillo. He did it three quick times, hard, systematically, viciously, a resounding “WHAK” with each blow. The poor animal grunted and twitched with the first two blows, then was still after the third. Bud waited a moment, observing, then whacked at the animal two more times.

Brian stood there squeezing his father’s hand, lips trembling, flinching with every blow. He was too terrified to speak or even breathe. It all happened so fast. Mike stood holding his son’s hand in disbelief. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He knew his father-in-law was crazy, but he didn’t know the man was beat-an-armadillo-to-death-with-a-golf-club crazy. He didn’t even know such a condition existed.

Bud, satisfied the animal was deceased, wiped his brow with his forearm, then pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his shorts and lit one. He strode back to the golf cart, returned his club to the bag, then removed a beer from the cooler in the cart and popped it open.

“It’s still your shot, Mike,” said Bud, calmly sipping his beer.

Brian screamed and began to cry.

3.

Standing in his garage clutching a golf club 25 years later, Brian remembered the incident in perfect detail. Holding his father’s hand, watching his grandfather, who would die of a heart attack two years later, beat an armadillo to death with a golf club. The sickening “WHAK” of the club as it hit home.

A cold bead of sweat trickled down the back of his neck.

That was one of the few memories Brian had of his grandfather, and, accordingly, Brian always thought of him as a brutish, drunken, scary old Texan. And now here he was, wielding the savage seven-iron in a display equal to his genetics.

The fog of remembering lifted and Brian was, all at once, acutely aware of his surroundings. Hovering over the banged-up car in his garage wielding a golf club like a maniac. He noticed for the first time he hadn’t closed the garage door — he’d been there the whole time, hitting the car with the golf club, door wide open — and outside the door he saw three young boys, mouths agape, standing there watching him.

Brian guessed the boys were between ten and twelve years old. One had a basketball resting between his arm and hip. All three just stood staring, afraid to move now that the violent ogre with the club had spotted them.

Brian stared back at the boys. He stood perfectly still. Nobody said a word, nobody moved for a good twenty seconds, which to the three young boys seemed like forever. Then Brian took a step away from the car toward the wall of the garage, still clutching the club in his right fist. The boys stiffened. The kid with the basketball looked for a second like maybe he would bolt. All three looked scared.

Brian raised his hand to the wall and pressed the button to close the door. The motor for the garage door opener cranked up and kicked in with a roar. He turned to face the children, who still had their eyes locked on him. As the door lowered and the boys watched the crazy man beating his car disappear from their world, Brian waited until he saw six sneakers disappear in a sliver of light, then, in the dim darkness of his garage, he turned back to his car. He waited a moment. Then he brought the bent club above his head and brought it down again on the hood twice.

For Grandpa Bud.

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