Chase pauses, listens. The house is silent, no boil of rancor to zigzag around. It is Saturday. No school uniform or natty casual, he becomes this untidy boy in shorts, a t-shirt, his mop of dark hair uncombed. He goes outside, follows the sloped path that edges the eleventh green, and skids into the cool hush of the arroyo. Always taking a paper lunch sack with him, he collects lost golf balls. Mulligans, he has heard them called. Take a mulligan. It means cheating, it means someone has hooked, sliced, flubbed. He always finds at least a dozen mulligans and he sells them to golfers waiting at a tee box or parked in a fairway. There are complaints sometimes. That Adams boy! That dumb mute! Selling our balls back to us. The nerve! Chase snickers. Balls is a funny word. Some admin dweeb at the club phones his parents. Chase, damn it, we got another call about you. Nuisance this and pest that. His mother, her razor-sharp voice. There are chides, threats, his allowance halved. But Chase continues. I’m a savvy businessman, he thinks; and what can my stupid parents do anyway? Nothing truly harsh. Not against Chase with his crazy, with his muteness. Balls.
In his usual spy mode today, he lurks through the arroyo, hides within the thickets of manzanita shrubs and oleanders. Sneaky low, he crawls the rust-red banks to peer into patios and houses, to glimpse intimacies: a swift trade of slaps between that mother and daughter so witty, so chic at club functions; that young lawyer couple having a mid-morning screw on their pine butcher block. All interesting to Chase, these private moments. Others’ lives.
Chase cruises the arroyo, picks mulligans out of the dirt. Here is loose focus and no honed wariness; the flail in him ebbs, the crookedness aligns and he is true. What the hell is wrong with you, Chase? Damn it. Your tongue, your larynx, it all checks out fine. So speak! But why speak. Why not smash things instead.
Hearing the metallic clatter of putters being stashed into golf bags, he climbs to a green. Here’s a foursome piling into their carts, one of them boasting about his birdie. Another notices Chase and says, There’s the rascal. Found that Titleist I shanked at the eighth? As they chuckle all around, Chase identifies one man, the fat gut with the blubbery lips: Chase has spied him in lady-panties, mouthing along with a diva’s aria on his record player.
They’re jokers, this group; they already reek of beer and this blunts their scorn. Chase trusts them not to be finks, not to fink on him. His father uses this word in whispery brouhahas with his mother as they prowl around the billiard table at night. That bastard’s a fink, his father says as he chalks the tip of his stick, as he slams into a cue ball. That bastard will fink on me and it will ruin us. Chase has figured out that a fink is a snitch, that to fink on means to squeal, to tattle, to betray. He collects words, fits them neatly into the folds of his brain. It all becomes only words: the chin-chuck of the school librarian, the pity in the eyes of his therapist, the slippery click of his mother’s pearls as she cinches the clasp. Only sentences, black ink in cursive or block or italics on the white paper of his mind.
Chase thrusts the sack of mulligans at the foursome and splays one hand. Five bucks? says one of the men. Highway robbery. He thumbs cash out of his wallet and with a wink, he gives Chase a ten. Chase nods his thanks and scampers back into the arroyo. In the scant shade of a palo verde tree, he stretches out on a tilted slab of sandstone and twists his knuckles into his eyelids. He mulls, Am I a happy boy? It its meaning who I am? No, he supposes. Take your pills! Pills will make you happy! So he takes his pills, a purple and orange capsule, a baby-blue tablet. The colors of blankness. He sits up suddenly, catching a voice calling out, Nurse! Nurse! A beckoning to the girl who drives around the golf course in a cart loaded with drinks and snacks. Chase scrambles to the fairway, but hangs back as the girl sells cans of icy cold Tecate and pockets her tip, hangs back until the golfers speed away. Hello, Melissa.
My lovely boy, she says to Chase as he walks up to her. Still only to me?
Still only to you.
His muteness lifts when he’s with Melissa. He approached her not long ago to buy a Pepsi. Anything else? she said. Chase scanned the bins of chips and cookies and trail mix and shook his head. A shy boy, she said. Cat got your tongue? Or no, it’s something else. She put the tip of her index finger on his mouth. Mute? Chase nodded. But there’s poetry trapped in here. Sonnets. Beautiful lyrics. He stepped back to take her in fully. Platinum ponytail, dark roots. Sunned skin, glossy with lotion. Slender, muscular limbs. White shorts, white tank top. A tattoo of a galloping horse on one shoulder. She was twenty-eight, thirty, he guessed. He breathed in her scent, a blend of sweat and cheap gardenia. But you can talk to me, she said. What’s your name?
Chase. I’m Chase. He paid for his Pepsi and scurried away. Within that scent again today, Chase plucks a can out of the trough of ice and says, My rhinestone cowgirl..
I’m all ears, Chase. Talk to me. Talk a blue streak. Tell me who I am.
You’re a swirly girl. You boot-scoot across a stage and sing honky-tonk songs about unfaithful love. Under the hot neon in your glitter-glam and your pink cowgirl hat. The guy in the band who plays the guitar hankers after you and wants to steal you away on the back of his chopper. But you’ve been burned and spurned and you won’t let turmoil into your heart again. And then you come here and become this nurse.
Sad, Chase. It’s sad, isn’t it.
Now you tell me who I am.
A rich boy. A smart boy. A lonely boy. Crazy mad, but adorable. You’ll woo and charm and smash a lot of girls’ hearts.
Turn me into a song, Melissa. Write a ballad about me.
Nurse! Nurse! Another foursome hails her.
A music mogul out of Nashville is coming to the bar tonight. My big chance. Maybe I’m on my way.
Nurse! We’re dying!
I have to go. Melissa hops in her cart and wheels away.
My rhinestone cowgirl. Chase continues to wander, to peer into the fancy houses along the humps and shallows of the golf course. Through that window screened with metal fretwork, a man lopes on a treadmill. On that patio enclosed in thick mesh, within baskets of ferns gently misted, an elderly woman in a lilac pantsuit is weeping. Curious. Other people. He traipses homeward, climbs out of the arroyo, crosses the eleventh green, and skulks into his mother’s high-walled garden.
Beds of black, moist soil with pansies and dahlias, glazed ceramic pots with frail violets, and the hot reek of it all. This garden is odd evidence of aspects of his mother not often glimpsed. Of her tenderness. Of her hurt. Chase often catches her sitting here on a stone bench, her eyes shut, her hands folded primly on her lap. Serene, not someone he identifies and he shudders.
He goes into the house, into its darkness slashed with blades of sunlight coming through slit-thin skylights. His mother is out. I’m going out, she announces. I have to get out of here. He listens to his father say, Where is out? What is the exact location of out? But she never says. His father is in. It is the opposite of out. He’s in the den, slumped in the giant leather couch, arms crossed, one eyebrow cocked at Fox News. Paperwork is scattered across the coffee table and a half-empty bottle of bourbon is on the floor. He is absolute stillness, this smart, good-looking man. Think of what I could have been, he has said. A major league shortstop. The Padres scouted me. Now I finagle. His eyes slide towards Chase and he says, Doomsday, son. Doomsday.
Chase spends the afternoon in his cluttered, boy-messy room with his books about vampires and pirates, with a video game, the numb slaughter of zombies. A golf ball smacks the wrought-iron screen of his window. Mulligan, he thinks; easy pickings. He has an essay to write, a simple task, another A-plus. So vivid! his sourpuss teacher scribbled in the margins of his last essay. So well written! About some dumb old war. War words. Doughboys. Mustard gas. Bayonet.
As a drab orange dusk seeps in, Chase hears his mother’s arrival home. How noisily she enters! The drop-crunch of twine-handled shopping bags, the jangle of her keys tossed across the marble-topped kitchen island, groans of exhaustion, curses about sales clerks and the basic lack of competence, and then there’s the traffic!, fuck!, this awful Phoenix traffic. But there isn’t always this racket and bluster. Sometimes she slips into the house, a mussed and smug blur, and vanishes into her private study. Spooky stealth.
Coming out of his room (cautious, cautious, interpret the mood), Chase smells hoisin sauce. Take-out for dinner (again), moo shu pork and brown rice. Who’s starving? his mother says. Me. That’s who. She is lean, all jutting bones, her gestures swift and sharp. I’m a scythe, she says. A human scythe. Look out. She is pallid, her clothes only white or pale gray, but she is dark too, dark hair in an acute bob, dark eyes thickly lined, a blood-red mouth. She yanks open a kitchen cabinet and sighs a growl. Plates. The plate incident. In the midst of parental deadlock, a speechless, animal crouch, Chase smashed plates, littered the floor with shards until his father grappled him into calm. But there are no new plates yet. On purpose, Chase thinks; so we’re not matched. His mother hauls out what wasn’t smashed (blue glass, fine china with gold squiggles, earthenware) and with napkins and utensils, she shoves these at Chase. Take these. He spins into the adjoining dining room and sets the ends, the extreme ends, of the long, long tiger maple table, and he puts himself on one side, dead center. He fetches a glass of milk and now sits, sits small. His father comes in with a bottle of wine and uncorks it, squeal and suck, and splashes two goblets full and his mother scoops out the pails of take-out and tosses around the folded, papery pancakes and the little containers of hoisin sauce. And now they’re all sitting. Sitting small.
A wordless thing swells, oozes, snags in the tiger stripes. They’re plotting the night’s seethe. How it is. Now his mother cracks her fortune cookie and reads the slip of paper out loud. You will soon find bliss. In bed. Ha! She always adds, In bed. Ha! Dinner cleared and the evening cleared, Chase tucks himself into his room, flips into his laptop. Italy is a country in southern Europe with an august and ancient history. The capital, Rome, has for centuries been at the crux of Western civilization, in art, religion, and politics. Crux is a smart word and so is august. He claps shut his laptop as he hears the clack! of billiard balls. All tip-toe, nerves alert, he sneaks out of his room and inserts his slim self into his spy nook, a nifty alcove made as if their architect anticipated his need for such a place. He peeks into the billiard room, observes his parents circling the table, its slick ebony edges, its emerald-green felt. The only light is a low-hanging lamp with a rectangular shade above the table that illuminates the surface, his parents’ hands, arms, their bodies as they bend to align and take a shot. But tonight there is no low rumble about finks, about being finked on. No tallying between them, no nasty swipes, only the click and careen of billiard balls.
In the morning, there are no snide asides about victory or points lost, only blithe chat about the day’s plans. But what’s unspoken settles in the pulse, makes it simmer. They should take a mulligan, Chase thinks; cheat, not take a penalty, not add that flub to their score cards. Flub. Maybe I’m the flub.
Sunday brunch. Chase has to wear a necktie, an oxford shirt, khaki pants, the same as his father. In a summery sundress patterned with abstract pansies, his mother comes into the kitchen. Chase watches as she eyes his father and he eyes her. A pause. Who are we today? Never mind that. We’re late. They drive the mile and a half to the club, leave the BMW with the valet, and sweep in. It’s a matter of how to negotiate the tedium, of how to maneuver through the crowd already boozy with mimosas, soon followed with brown, double, neat. Any of Chase’s classmates dragged here have already fled, their parents shooing them out after making them do hellos. Chase endures it too, though he’s become adept at ducking under the pat-a-pat-pats on his head. Poor mute boy. As he nods a hello. What a shame. He won’t be able to talk to girls. Another nod hello. Oh, but to have a husband who never says a word! Eventually, a wink from his father lets him escape and he hustles out.
A flagstone path through a grove of topiary (javelina, teapot, snowman) leads Chase to a metal gate; he unlatches it and lets himself into the pool area. Teen girls, unfairly allowed to skip brunch, lie on chaises longues in skimpy bikinis; they banter shrilly, trade snickery gossip. Others swim laps in the olympic pool, a lithe shuttling through the bright, silvery water. Chase sits on the end of a chaise, within the girls’ pretty sneers. But they tolerate him. There’s that weird kid who can’t talk. Girls jump into the pool, somersault underwater. He’s a sweetie, don’t razz him. Girls climb the aluminum ladder out of the pool and sashay back to their beach towels. And all the time, their ceaseless chatter. She is so dead to me! In the tool shed? That slut. But now she won’t flunk chemistry. Ha! Chase listens, scoops it all up. This marvelous world, slim bodies under the sun, the oddly sensual tang of chlorine in the girls’ hair, and all of the words.
Chase scoots back to the clubhouse and finds his parents in the members only. He perches on a swivel stool at the bar and the cocktail lady brings him a gingerale with grenadine. He scans the cool dim. Clusters of people in tiny confabs, minor hubbub slashed with guffaws. Oil paintings of cowboys lassoing cattle, of a squaw tending a flock of sheep. And there’s his mother, all flit and flirt, a clumsy whirl. And his father, in a broody mood, sunk in a wingback chair, a tumbler of brown held on one knee. Who are we today? Never mind that. Chase’s gaze drifts to the golf course, the eighteenth green, and he thinks of Melissa. My rhinestone cowgirl. Still only to me? Still only to you. He hears his mother’s voice. Okay already. His father steers her out and Chase tags their wake. As they wait for the valet to get the car, Chase collects more words. Prick. Lush. Shameless. Spoiled. Insolvent.
Another week rolls along into Saturday, its release. I’m going out, says Chase’s mother as she dashes away. His sullen father is bowed, hip against the kitchen island. With a paper lunch sack, Chase hurries into the arroyo. As he collects mulligans, he tilts an ear towards the golf course, anticipating pleas of Nurse!, Nurse! Soon, the sack is filled with lost balls and he sells it to a cranky foursome. Five dollars. Fine. Now scram. He meanders the hours aimlessly until he spots the drink and snack cart as it rounds a hillock. His heart skips, then spasms. It’s not Melissa, it’s another girl, someone entirely other. Chase turns away, trips on the fringe of the fairway, belly-slides into the arroyo. A music mogul out of Nashville is coming to the bar tonight. It’s doomsday, son. Doomsday. His mind clamps tightly. He touches his mouth. There’s poetry trapped in here. Chase plods home, crushed under the dread sureness that Melissa has boot-scooted away. And echoing faintly in his mind, My lovely boy.
A wordless scene at home. Suitcases in the foyer, his father adding to them. His mother is sitting on her garden bench, eyes shut, hands clenched on her lap. The logical catastrophe. Chase lingers in the margins of it, as if a comment. So vivid! So well written!
All of the words leak out of Chase now and flood the floor, breaking into liquid shards. Letters and syllables eddy, catch on things. The k of fink wedges on a corner of a suitcase. Finagle swirls around Chase’s ankles, breaks apart. Lush and scram flow into the garden, splash against his mother’s shins. Nurse! and crux and bliss gush across the golf course, snag on flagsticks, spool into homes; x and s and b float between that mother and daughter in a spat, c curls around the elderly woman weeping. Words coming apart drench the clubhouse and pour into the olympic pool, letters grazing, hooking the girls’ bodies. But the words do not stream to his rhinestone cowgirl, gone now, gone. Write a ballad about me, Chase thinks. Put me back together. Put me into words.
-- Jenny Wales Steele’s fiction has appeared in Sou’wester, cleavermagazine.com, The Ampersand Review, juked.com, Salt Hill,verdadmagazine.org, Harpur Palate, among many others, and she’s been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. A native Arizonan, she lives in Tucson. Visit her at www.jennywalessteele.weebly.com