Free Golf

Free Golf

The autumn Saturday we drove Benny to Tenbark, we didn’t turn on the radio. My dad had been in the marching band and still tailgates twice a season, and I’d covered football—including a trip to the Aloha Bowl—for the student newspaper. Still, no game. Not with Benny in the car.

The trip had started without words, and there was no point in altering what, for ten miles, had worked. Football could have jinxed it. So could have classic rock. I refused even to adjust the tilt of my seat—fearing Benny would finally speak and say he wanted out: Turn the car around. You can’t make me go. Every fifty seconds of silence was another mile clicked off, which put us closer to the Indiana border, which brought Illinois nearer. And the Wis­con­sin line, and the town of Tenbark, and the Irving Clinic. Benny was smoking and bankrupt and in the passenger seat. I was behind our dad, not smoking and not bankrupt.

I figured the miles to Kalamazoo, Chicago, and Rockford. Four minutes later I did it again. And five minutes after that. I threw in Paw Paw and Benton Harbor. I told myself, Wait twenty minutes before doing any more math. You’re trying to cut back. Ha ha. Benny snapped his spent cigarette out the window and lit another. The International Space Station has a more relaxed policy on smoking than my dad does in his Yukon, but he said nothing. His telepathic message to me and mine to him were identical: Keep the wheels spinning.

Two hundred ninety miles until Gary, Indiana.

Later, after we hit the deer, there was the distance between the young buck’s head and the rest of his body.

How old was Benny when he made his first bet?

I have never asked my parents that question. It would sound too much like blame, like saying they should have stopped Benny when he was wagering hockey cards and quarters. As if the first time they had overheard him insist on double or nothing they should have recognized the destruction ahead.

He was five, maybe. We grew up across the street from Pioneer Hills, the flattest and brownest golf course in Michigan. Our street ran along the third fairway. We didn’t know it then, but calling that plain of baked dirt a “fairway” was an act of generosity. We slipped onto the course twenty minutes before sunset, after the last golfers had passed through. Often we skipped to the fifth hole, a 90-yard par three. The green was an oval, deeper than it was wide. A nearly sandless sand trap was on its left and a cornfield ran behind it. The grass around the green had the verdancy of a fairgrounds parking lot. We played closest to the pin and bet fifty cents a round. I was three years older so I gave Benny a two club-length handicap. We argued over which club it would be until finally settling on his driver.

My other brother’s name is Monk. He is between me and Benny in age. Monk didn’t golf, though, or bet. He stayed back and worked on his marble shots, read, drew comic book characters, and practiced walking on his hands. Monk could have won every marble Benny owned, but he refused to play except for funsies. Benny demanded they play keepsies but Monk collected his marbles in his green pouch and said, “No thanks, Benny.” Then he went off to sketch another Wolverine or Doctor Doom.

“Funsies is for girls,” Benny yelled after him.

Monk, unperturbed as a mannequin boy at J.C. Penney, drifted away from the dirt patch. We’d made the smooth circle ourselves in the shade of the garage.

“Only fairies play funsies,” Benny called, oblivious to the favor Monk was doing him. “You’re such a funsies fairy.”

“We think Benny needs help,” my dad had told me over the phone.

“He owes me two thousand dollars, so I’d agree.”

“Two thousand? You got off easy.”

Benny had called me from Reno and said he’d left his wallet in the cab. I wired him money. Another time I’d written a check because he said his credit card company had screwed up, and he swore to God it would only take them a month to correct the balance.

“Mom and I have looked into treatment options, and what it comes down to is, we don’t think once-a-week therapy sessions are going to fix anything. We talked to a few counselors and told them about the lies, and about his trips to Nevada, and the casinos around here.”

“What about football?”

“We told them. I wouldn’t forget that. Not after his bookies started calling our house.”

“Remember when he broke the window after North Carolina State lost on a Hail Mary? Since when does he care about North Carolina State?”

“Since he lost money on them. He’s lost money on everybody.”

“I know.”

“It could be a junior high game in Wyoming.”

“I know.”

“The counselors didn’t want to give a black-and-white verdict without meeting Benny, but they went as far as they could, and they all hinted the same thing: inpatient treatment.”

I asked, “What about Josie?”

“Mom talked to her. She said she’s calling off the wedding if he doesn’t get help.”

“I don’t blame her.”

“Neither do we.”

“Does Benny have any idea?”

“We don’t think so.”

Orange construction barrels appeared on the right shoulder. Gradually they slanted into the slow lane. Traffic was light enough; Dad barely dropped his speed. The car’s silence took on a new dimension as we passed through the construction zone, because normally my dad would gripe about the lane closure—two miles of barrels and not one worker anywhere. He takes exception to any sign claiming that CONSTRUCTION is ahead—the sign, he argues, should warn that pointless orange cones and an abandoned paver are ahead. We drafted behind a blue tractor-trailer. Barrel after barrel, Dad said nothing. Benny smoked on.

When we first started planning Benny’s intervention, I’d imagined the addiction treatment as part of a larger reformation. Benny would quit smoking and start eating salads. He’d read more books and make new friends—non-gambling, light-drinking friends. We’d run a 10K together. Around the ninth cigarette, still traveling single-file between semis, I wanted Benny to die.

Since toddlerhood, Benny has gathered friends with the same blitzing intensity that applies to his smoking, his dice-rolling, and his other appetites. I hear my own prudery, and I don’t blame the droves of people who laugh more over one scotch with Benny than they could in a year of drinks with me. He craves longtime companions and new pals as desperately as he hungers for risk, and the fact that he is often good to his friends does not negate the hunger. Benny was big-hearted with Mr. Teesawl, a man who lived alone in a farmhouse beyond the Pioneer Hills cornfields. With his wife dead, Teesawl kept busy by knocking out walls, pulling up tiles, and dismantling cabinets. The summer Benny turned fifteen, he went to work for Mr. Teesawl. That’s when Benny learned how to rewire a room and how to hang drywall. Together they shingled a roof. Benny’s abilities grew, and so did the muscles in his arms and back. Besides the money, compensation came in the form of World War II stories, dirty jokes, instruction in the trades, hand-me-down tools, and beer. Neither of them had a sip until work was done for the day. “Parallel is parallel and ninety is ninety,” Teesawl taught my brother, and it remains a maxim for Benny to this day.

Benny was eighteen when Mr. Teesawl went into a hospice facility. I was home for Thanksgiving. Benny cried at the kitchen table and wiped his eyes with a turkeys-and-cornucopias dish towel. It was the kind of towel I was fleeing. Its images spoke of domesticity and commitment to one’s kin. The oranges and browns beamed with fall togetherness and mutual goals. But I didn’t see a horn of plenty. By then I was noticing the horn’s exterior: it was a tornado. It spawned a path of destruction. Show me a cornucopia and I will show you a family where some people do a lot of eating while the rest do the work.

Benny—he would have donated a lung to Mr. Teesawl.

Now, whenever Benny goes to our parents’ house to change a bathroom exhaust fan or replace a cracked spindle in their bannister, he’ll say he can’t open his toolbox without thinking of Bill Teesawl. “Mister ‘Parallel is parallel’ himself. And warm beer was warm beer. Speaking of Bill: What did one broke prostitute say to another?”

Pioneer Hills advertised on the Big Boy placemats. Ask about our weekday rates! Call for tee times. Given our stowaway style of golf, rates and tee times applied to us about as much as the ads for Nellus Excavation and the Wunstee County Credit Union. We ordered chocolate milk and hamburgers, and the chocolate milk came first. Monk didn’t touch his drink; with effort, I saved half a glass for dinner. Benny guzzled his, then accused my parents of gross unfairness. There was no way one chocolate milk was enough, he fumed. There was no way! It was ridiculous! Other tables looked at ours. A famous variation on this experiment was done with marshmallows at Stanford a few years before I was born, but my experience is that the chocolate milk came first, and Big Boy was the original psych lab.

When the waitress cleared our plates, Monk was still nursing a third of a glass.

“Just drink it, you dipstick,” Benny said.

“I need more cigarettes,” Benny announced. “If I had known you were going to kidnap me, I would have planned better.”

On the school bus, Benny sat everywhere. He deposited himself in the back row with the boys who scratched SLAYER and IRON MAIDEN on any flat surface the bus or the school offered. They smelled like ashtrays and bent their necks so their hair drooped over their faces like greasy weeping willows. Other times Benny grabbed a seat across from a quiet tennis player who promised Benny tickets to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

He also would take the front row and chat up the driver, Miss Wrope.

“You ever get tired?” Benny asked. “My dad would be the worst bus driver. He falls asleep after five minutes. Halfway down the driveway he’s ready for a nap.”

“That’s what coffee is for.”

“Are you married?”

“I used to be. Won’t make that mistake again.”

“His loss.”

I can picture Benny flirting with Miss Wrope more clearly than I can picture my own seat. Was I a third of the way back? Was I on the left or on the right? Did I do anything besides look out the window?

A few years ago Benny was bartending at Pete’s Jar House when she came in.

“Guess who sat at the bar last night?” he quizzed me.

“You always ask and I never know.”

“Miss Wrope.”

“Who’s that?”

“Our old bus driver. The good-looking one.”

“We never had a good-looking bus driver.”

“Miss Wrope was the only one.”

“You recognized her?”


“She looks the same?”

“No, older. And a little rougher.”

“How’d you know it was her?”

“She still looks like herself.”

Many times I’ve witnessed Benny do this: recognize a person he hasn’t seen in more than ten years. They could have gained fifty pounds, gone bald, and had their face weather-stripped from a decade of boating or construction work, but Benny will hail them, and will hug them, and will remember the time when.

Crossing the Indiana border felt like leaving a wake of tumbling numbers behind us—all the exits and towns I no longer had to calculate. When we reached the first toll booth I was as still and ungenerous as Benny. Benny would have argued that prisoners of war don’t cover the tolls, and I figured my presence was giving enough. He wasn’t my son.

This free round trip to Wis­con­sin was my reward for being the normal boy. Monk, meanwhile, was probably meditating in his apartment in the student ghetto, eating a yam he’d heated in a toaster oven, grading the papers he’d collected in whatever bullshit class he was teaching as an adjunct at a community college, contemplating what steps remained for him to become the next Søren Kierkegaard, and waiting to retrieve the entirety of his wardrobe from the dryer. He had not been included in the intervention—my mom was supposed to call him while we were en route. Monk hasn’t had insurance in years; that would have been too conventional a priority. In ways, Monk was as worthy of an intervention as Benny was, but one reason my parents hoped to make some post-childhood adjustments to his life—the fact that he viewed health coverage as a silly bourgeois fixation—also prevented any rescue efforts.

If interventions, instead of being directed at those who wagered or drank too much, were schemed for the son who was compulsively cautious, who avoided risk as fervently as Benny pursued it, who demonstrated that guardedness can be as harmful as any other extreme, then I’d have my turn in the passenger seat. And the world could end in an Intervention Royal, and we could all go down clawing, denying, weeping, tossing each other into Yukons, hauling one another to the Irving Clinic.

Monk is even less entertaining at a bar than I am, but I’ll say this for him: I have never wished for his death.

On the third fairway we’d night-hunt for worms and bet on that, too. After a heavy summer rain the wormholes filled with water and the occupants fled to the open air. Boys from the subdivision grabbed shoeboxes and flashlights. We crossed the wet rough, keeping the lights trained in front of us. The night crawlers were easy to spot: pinkish-purple, the color of a bruise, they glistened against the grass that stayed brown despite the rain. There was no saving that fairway. Every boy brought a dollar. We went to the tee box and pulled out our singles. We stacked them on a marker and pinned them with a rock. The boy with the most worms won the money. A few times we attempted side pools on the longest worm, but the worms wiggled, thumbs obstructed true dimensions, and before any accurate measurements could be made each boy had snatched up his dollar and everyone had told everyone else to eat shit.

If you snapped a worm in half and tried to pass it off as two, you were disqualified, lost your dollar, and had to tongue kiss—to the extent possible—both ends of the ripped night crawler.

We spread across the fairway, each of us looking for a secret vein. Twenty minutes went by, until one of us hollered, “Tee box in two! Tee box in two!”

We counted the worms, settled on our winner, and pitched the night crawlers underhand into the corn.

“Let’s go again.”

That was Benny’s line, every time. It’s like the memory of an explosion, finding me at night, driving alone. “Let’s go again.” Benny, gripping the rock and standing on the money, refusing to let the winner claim his cash, rejecting the notion that the night’s wagers were over. “Let’s go again.” Benny, readying himself for the craps table and for scuffles with casino security.

The night before the intervention, I said to my dad, “Remember how Monk refused to join the worm hunts?”

“Worm hunts?”

“At Pioneer Hills.”

“I guess he did stay home.”

“He said that worms had feelings, too,” I said, “and that it was torture to put them on top of each other in a shoe box without dirt.”

“Good for him.”


“And now he’s a vegetarian.”

“The signs were there.”

An auto loan company left a message on my phone: Benny had listed me as a character reference, they said, and I needed to call them back.

Call them back and say what? Lend him as much as he wants. No, don’t lend him a penny. You’re nuts if you do. You’ll get your payments whenever the Big Ten gods are kind to him, which isn’t often. Our old bus driver would tell you to give him a million dollars.

You should know about the chocolate milk.

His credit score should say something about Pioneer Hills; it should say, “Let’s go again.”

He’s my brother.

I’m not interested in co-signing, but he is my brother.

Sniffling, Josie showed Benny she’d already packed his bag. It’s because we love you, Benny. It’s because we love you. It’s a disease and this is the way to get better and beat the disease. Josie was trying to say exactly what she’d heard on TV.

He said no a dozen times. We were fucking up his life, not making it better. How brain-dead did we have to be, to think that taking a month off work would help his money problems? He went so Josie wouldn’t cancel the wedding, not because he agreed he had a gambling problem.

The highway became smoother when we crossed into Wis­con­sin. We were driving straight north now—the final direction. Seven exits to go. The last toll booth was behind us. I had been in and out of sleep since the Chicago suburbs. Large signs urged us to stop for cheese—I wouldn’t have stopped if they were giving away all the cheese you could fit in your trunk. Behind a shoal of clouds the sun had set. The fields on either side of us were stubbled, and in the dusk I looked for a golf course to go with the crop. Benny lit what I presumed to be the journey’s last cigarette. What would the mileage have been if a bridge crossed the entirety of Lake Michigan? How many hours could we have saved had the bridge been constructed on a diagonal from the middle of the Michigan shoreline to southern Wis­con­sin? Some unlikely gene—a strand of avian DNA—must have wended its way through the routes of evolution to linger in me, because I yearn to travel as the crow flies. I measure what could have been. Even before computers I did this—using a road atlas, the millimeter lines of a ruler, and a magnifying glass.

A balance of energy was being struck within me. Every darkening yard now was a squeeze of adrenaline, making me antsy, and bouncy, and impatient to shove Benny out of the car and simplify my life. Josie could marry him or not. I wouldn’t be there. Simultaneously, the smooth road and the headlights and the dusk were like the sounds of tranquility to me—like a rainstick and a Tibetan singing bowl. Take away Benny’s cigarettes and Wis­con­sin was placid. I should come back alone, I thought, after Benny has finished his treatment and has left the state. I’d have my car to myself, and I could find a cabin to rent on a cool, sandy lake. I would tell no one. In the local coffee shop I would meet a woman so self-sufficient, so together, that we would fall in love without ever needing each other. In the lead-up to Benny’s intervention I had read enough of codependency. What I’d seek in the coffee shop was co-independency. My towels would stay monochrome. I could do my job from anywhere and earn my health care from anywhere. Benny and I would never be in the same state again. I say you’re an idiot if you’re chasing the thrills and cacophony of Vegas. Warmth was plenty. Not even necessary, but plenty.


Benny said it evenly a half-second before impact. I never saw it. Not alive.

The deer did not bounce onto the hood. Nor did it carom back to the ditch or get thrown to the shoulder. Somehow, it went under. The front bumper must have pinned him and then, improbably, cleared him. We dribbled him and dragged him, sensing his body bang along the undercarriage and thwack our feet. Eventually he shot out the back in two pieces, a body and a head. My dad pulled over to walk around the Yukon. While he examined the dented bumper and the front wheel wells, I took note of the headless body and the bodiless head, both in a state of complete collapse, of done-ness, and I tried to determine which portion, on its own, was more disturbing.

This deer’s disaster was the opposite of Benny’s. Cause-effect gets no clearer than this: the deer ran in front of our car, causing us to run it over, leading to its decapitation, leading in the same instant to its death. But in my family? It’s impossible to say whether I caused Benny or Benny caused me, or if Benny is a cause and Monk is an effect, or if my parents failed to prevent Benny, or if they should get credit, even praise, for raising the best version of Benny that genetics and the golf course would allow.

The little buck’s head and I assessed each other with equal levels of indifference. We were five miles away from the Irving Clinic. I would walk it. If a police car pulled up and offered us a ride to a hospital or a diner or anything besides the Irving Clinic, I would refuse. Five hundred miles of a five hundred and five mile trip. What were the odds? Where would Vegas have set that line?

Other than the dented bumper, the Yukon, as far as we could tell, was fine. Where would Vegas have set that line?

“Benny wants to stay,” the admitting counselor said. “He knows he has a problem. He wants to get help.”

When I hugged my brother, standing far enough from the Irving Clinic entrance not to trigger the sliding door, my embrace must have told him that I wanted him to get better, and that I wanted him to be erased from my life, that I hoped never to hear from a loan officer again, or enter a Western Union. By hugging him I acknowledged that we had golfed the same holes and hunted the same worms and bet the same quarters and dollars and sports cards and marbles, and he had become addicted and I had not, and it was an honor to be a part of his first step toward recovery, and this moment might be the last we see each other alive.

Southbound, we looked across the median for the dead deer, but it was too dark.

I said, “Do you think he’s called an admitting counselor because he can get people to admit things?”

“The guy could have recorded it,” my dad said. “We should have gotten a video. I wanted to see it for myself. Benny may have admitted it, but never to me.”

“I have it ready,” I said, wallet open, when we rolled up to the first toll booth.

“Did you hear what Benny said to me,” my dad asked, “when you were by the deer and we were in front of the car?”

“No. What?”

“He said, ‘You should have seen it coming.’ ”  




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