We each carried a plastic grocery bag and a club. Karinger’s was an old 3-wood—so old, it was actually made out of wood, except for a little metal plate across the top of the head that had the number 3 painted on it in red. Mine was an impossibly long 2-iron that had a face as flat as a ruler. Karinger said even pros couldn’t use it right. Sometimes when the wind was low and if I got a ball that wasn’t cracked or yellowed, I could hit it pretty well. Problem was, the only golf balls we found in the desert by the old course had been lost there for a while. Some looked so old, they seemed just as natural as the California junipers. Good white golf balls were so rare, Karinger made me feel bad for using them. “We can sell them,” he’d say, but we never did.
We’d been ball-hunting out there for ten days straight. Karinger said he hadn’t seen anyone on the old golf course in a year. He had the idea to collect balls and take them to the new golf course on the other side of town, where crowds swarmed and the grass was kept nice. With the balls we collected in the desert and the clubs Karinger’s dad left behind, we could hit on the range there for free.
It was something to do. The walk was a slog, though, and sometimes I’d pretend I didn’t see balls in the tumbleweeds that I normally would’ve gone for, just because my bag had already gotten so heavy. “I’ll get them tomorrow,” I’d tell myself, but it was always harder to find a ball I’d already found and let go.
One time, Karinger reached into a dry bush for a ball that was lodged in there. From about a hundred yards away I heard him scream, so I ran over. I was going to ask what happened, but I saw it myself. Craning over a sharp yellow bush, a rattlesnake sat up like they do in movies. Karinger said in a whisper he didn’t get bit, but it was close. We got out of the way, just in case. Karinger took his 3-wood and nudged the snake until it hissed. “Let’s leave it,” I said, but Karinger didn’t listen to me. He took a huge backswing and almost hit me in the face with his club. Next thing I knew, he was drumming the snake’s head and body into the hard white dirt. I felt bad for the snake, but I hit it, too, once it stopped moving.
On the way home, Karinger straddled the yellow dashes of the empty highway. I walked in the dirt on the side of the road, using my club as a walking stick. Lizards raced before my feet, and once in a while I crushed a Pepsi can with my shoe or else knocked a plastic water bottle into the tumbleweeds with my 2-iron. The plastic bags, filled with old golf balls, hung from our wrists.
At one point, Karinger said, “You know we did more than kill a snake, right?” He kept moving forward, but now he looked right at me. “We’ll never get credit for it. But in the future, we just saved somebody’s life.”
* * * *
Before I met him, Karinger walked five miles home from school. Mom would pick me up, and every day on the drive back we’d see this chubby blond kid walking in the desert with a big backpack and a huge T-shirt darkened with sweat around its collar. One day after school, Mom drove me to a clothing store on another side of town. There he was, still walking, slower now, an hour and a half after school got out. Mom pulled the car over and told him we would give him a ride. From then on, we drove him home after school.
Of course I knew who he was: we were in seventh grade together. He wore old oversized T-shirts every day. From his face grew the ugly blond beginnings of a beard, a feat at school accomplished only by a Filipino eighth-grader. Karinger never talked in class, and I’d never seen him talk to anyone outside of class either. He was always alone. I usually spent my time at school alone, too, but at least people knew I could speak because I raised my hand a lot in class and answered questions.
In fact, in the beginning I heard him talk only when my mom asked him questions in the car. Once she asked him why he walked home in the heat. Karinger didn’t tell her it was because his mom worked all day and his dad was gone. He told her he liked finding things in the desert.
He started to come over to my house to play video games. We jumped on the trampoline in my backyard, jumped from the trampoline into the pool and swam all day. One time we’d been floating out there for a long while without saying anything to each other. I surprised myself by asking if he was jealous of my house. My parents both worked full-time; we weren’t well-off. But I knew he lived in a trailer.
“Jealous?” he said. “No way.” “But you live in a—” “Yeah,” he said. “So?”
“So, don’t you get bored?”
He dipped himself low into the pool so that the water came up to his nose. Without his oversized shirt on, he didn’t look so chubby. When he came back up, he asked me, “Have you ever hunted lizards?”
“No,” I said.
“You ever drink the water from a cactus?” I hadn’t.
“My backyard is the whole desert,” he said. He formed a cup with his hands and guided a dead yellow jacket along the edge of the water. “I’ve got this knife that used to be my dad’s, from the army. You take it to the cactus at just the right angle, you can get this really sweet water out of it.”
He went on and on about the desert and all the equipment his dad had left behind. He told me about the golf clubs and the abandoned course. By the end of his speech, I was so excited, I asked my parents if I could go to Karinger’s place after school. Later, his mom called mine and said, “You’ve got no idea how important your Daley is to my Robert.” Then it was summer, and I was at Karinger’s all the time.
* * * *
Karinger’s mom, Linda, did two things: She worked fifty-five hours a week at Antelope Valley Animal Shelter, and she entered sweepstakes. Scattered all over the floor of the trailer were losing scratch-off tickets. Walking between them on the carpet, my feet picked up their shavings.
If Karinger had shaved and worn a long blond wig, he’d have looked just like Linda. She even wore baggy T-shirts, too. After working at the shelter all day, she’d come home to Karinger, his younger sister, Roxanne, me, and the three cats living in the trailer. I couldn’t tell if the shaggy brown carpet smelled like the cats or if the cats smelled like the shaggy brown carpet. Either way, Linda had that smell, too.
One time, Karinger and I cleared a patch of that spotted carpet and sorted our golf balls. We put newer balls in one pile and scratched or warped ones in another.
That’s when Karinger told me we should sell the good ones. Linda was standing in the room, rocking a big brown cat named Potato in her arms. “Why don’t you tell Daley your real plan,” she said. She had a smile on her face like a kidder.
“That is my plan,” Karinger said. “We can sell them and spend the profits on better clubs. Then we’ll get really good at golf and be rich.”
His eleven-year-old sister—who, like my own sister, and therefore like all sisters, as far as I knew, had an amazing ability to disappear and reappear without my noticing—suddenly stood beside her mother. Roxanne Karinger said, “That’s not a bad idea, but me and Mom like your other idea better.”
Karinger slapped his hands together and nearly shouted: “Goodbye, ladies.”
Potato leaped from Linda’s arms and into our golf balls. She batted them between her paws and messed up the neat piles.
Karinger hissed at the cat. “Get out of here,” he said.
Roxanne stepped over and scooped Potato up from underneath. She flattened the cat’s face with her open palm and made funny noises. “You’re mashed, Potato,” she said. She giggled and squeezed the cat tight. I laughed, too.
Karinger rolled his eyes. He made a gun with his finger and thumb and pulled the trigger at the side of his head. “Boom,” he said, and flopped dead on the floor.
* * * *
A few times a year, Linda brought kittens home from the shelter in groups of six or seven. They’d stay at the house until they no longer needed to be bottle-fed. Sometimes the batches overlapped.
Sometimes there’d be thirteen or fourteen kittens living in the yellow bathtub. Once in a while, one of the kittens would die. When this happened, Linda wouldn’t bury the kitten nearby, even though Karinger asked her to let us bury it in the desert out back. “I can make a cross out of some twigs and we can say something nice,” he’d say, but his mom wouldn’t budge. She’d get rid of the dead kitten some other mysterious way.
She told us not to name the kittens. No use in getting attached, she’d say. Karinger did anyway and named them based on their colors. Black kittens were called Midnight or Oiler. He called orange ones Tangerine or Carrot. One time, Linda brought home a black and orange kitten and I suggested we call him Halloween, but Karinger said no. “That’s too easy,” he said. I wanted to point out that calling a white cat Snow White wasn’t exactly difficult, but I just shrugged. After a little while, Karinger said we could call the kitten Halloween, just until he thought of something better. He never did, and Halloween, like the rest of the kittens who survived, eventually went back to the shelter with Linda.
* * * *
We carried our golf balls and clubs to the new course across town. We walked for an hour before we came to the place, a lush green oasis with a big parking lot full of cars. A large boulder sat at the gate between the parking lot and the driving range. The words knickerbocker golf club were engraved on it and painted red. When we walked past the boulder, Karinger slapped it with his hand and said, “They use these fake rocks to cover up electric boxes and things like that.”
The boulder looked real to me, but I didn’t argue.
Toward the end of the packed driving range, we found two empty slots. When we set down our bags and clubs, Karinger knelt down and brushed his hand against the grass. “Not Astroturf,” he said.
Real golfers, he said, have to stretch before they start hitting. He put his 3-wood behind his neck and across his shoulders and hung his arms over the club’s shaft. He twisted his body left and right for a long time. I didn’t know what to do. I cracked my knuckles and rolled my ankles. Karinger said, “We need tees.”
In the grass we collected broken tees. They were wooden and colorful and left behind by real golfers. Some of them still had enough length to stick into the ground. A few of them had tops that were still intact enough to balance a golf ball. Once we found enough, we emptied our plastic bags onto the grass. Karinger had about fifty old balls and I had maybe half that. I got through mine with one swing per ball. My shots rarely got off the ground, but some of them rolled pretty far, spitting up dust like a car in the distance. I turned to see how Karinger was doing. I expected him to have a few more left to hit, but he hadn’t even made a dent.
“I’m taking practice swings,” he said. “Don’t get mad at me because you rushed through yours.”
He teed up and took a few more slow practice swings. He stepped up to the ball and placed his club behind it. He looked out into the targetless field for a long while. Then he brought the club back and around. He lost his footing on the way down and barely made contact. The ball dribbled a measly fifteen feet into the grass. “Redo,” Karinger said. He jogged out into the field to re-collect his miss-hit. Just as I was about to tell him he needed to hurry up, a man a few slots away in a Crocodile Dundee straw hat yelled out, “Kid, get back behind the line!” I hated being scolded, and even though Karinger was the one getting yelled at, the fact that I was with him made me nervous.
“Sorry,” I said to Crocodile Dundee.
When Karinger got back, the man came over with a huge metal driver in his hands. “You guys have got to be careful,” the man said. “I’m not a good enough shot to guarantee I won’t shank it in your direction next time.”
“Sorry,” I repeated. Karinger didn’t say anything. The man tipped his hat and went back to his slot.
“Can you believe that?” Karinger asked. “Old farts like that give golf a bad name.”
“I thought he was pretty nice about it,” I said. “You really shouldn’t have gone out there. It’s dangerous.” I pointed to a sign that said so.
Karinger was quiet.
“You need help finishing your pile?” I asked. I hoped he would say yes so we could get on our way.
“No,” he said, “I’ll be quick.” He went over to his slot and without much of a wait started hacking at the pile of golf balls. Some of them shot out at strange angles, but most of them hardly moved. He was chopping at them with his club. The 3-wood ripped hunks of grass out of the ground, leaving wet, muddy holes. Chunks of turf and mud splattered all over Karinger’s pants and T-shirt. Crocodile Dundee and a few other men ran over, yelling. Karinger, holding his weapon, grabbed my wrist with his free hand and we fled.
“Sorry!” I yelled out as we ran. On the way home—through the desert, to avoid roads—Karinger didn’t say a word.
* * * *
When we got back to the trailer, Linda told us she had a surprise in the bathtub. We went into the bathroom and opened the sliding door of the shower. A yellow kitten, alone, roamed. It had huge eyes, one blue and one green. Roxanne, toying with her single blond braid, appeared behind us and said, “Her name’s Kallie. Isn’t she cute?”
Karinger said, “I thought we weren’t supposed to name them.”
“Well, this one’s not going back to the shelter,” she said. “Mom says there’s something special about her.”
“What kind of name is Kallie?” Karinger said. He looked at the kitten while he asked his sister.
“It’s short for Kaleidoscope. She sort of looks like one.” She bent over to put her face near Kallie. “Don’t you?” she asked the kitten.
“That’s stupid,” Karinger said. He let the word hang there for a second, and then left the bathroom.
I stayed behind and played with Kallie. She made small squeaking noises by opening her mouth as wide as possible and shutting her eyes tight. Her head was too big for her body. She nibbled on my fingertips. I’d forgotten Roxanne was still there until she said, “Cute, right?”
“So cute,” I said.
“Guys?” Linda peeked around the door at us. “Where’s Robert?” “Being a baby in his room,” said Roxanne.
“Go check up on him,” Linda told her daughter, who, groaning, obliged.
Linda and Roxanne traded places, and before I could feel the awkwardness of our standing in a small bathroom together, Linda began to talk.
“Robert can be sweet,” she said. “You should have heard his original plan for the nicer golf balls you guys have collected. He came into my bedroom one night with the saddest, reddest face, like he’d been crying for years on end. He’d be embarrassed if he knew I’d told you, you know. It’s just that he can be so sweet, is all. I told this story to your mother.”
I thumbed between the kitten’s eyes.
“He came in all sad and I asked him, ‘What’s the matter, baby?’ And he didn’t even get mad when I called him that. He just inched his way to my bed and flopped down into it with me. You have to understand how sweet this all was. When I told your mother, you should have heard her voice. ‘Really?’ she seemed like she was asking, and I said, Really. It was just so sweet.”
I was nervous that Karinger was going to come back into the bathroom and discover his mom telling me his secrets. I decided I could only stay another minute.
“So he’s in bed with me and he’s just so red—I’ve never seen anyone so red—and he asks me, so quietly, ‘Mom’—and he said it just like that—‘Mom? You think if I get enough of these nice golf balls—’ ”
She paused for a moment. When she continued, something in her voice had changed.
“He said, ‘You think if I get enough of these nice ones, Dad’ll come back and teach me how to play?’ ”
I kept on with the kitten, afraid to look Linda in the eyes. The year before, I’d been a businessman—a neighborhood landscaper. I’d negotiated wages, for God’s sake. Now I’d regressed to the point of looking to a kitten for strength. Karinger was to blame, but I wasn’t sure how.
“Sure,” Linda continued. “I told him, ‘Sure, your dad will come back. Of course he will.’ But Robert’s not a child anymore. He knows I can’t promise a thing like that. He could tell I wasn’t being honest, and he’s been upset ever since. You should have heard your mother when I told her this story. ‘How sweet,’ your mother said in that cute accent of hers. And it was. It was really, really sweet.”
* * * *
That night, when Linda was asleep, I joined Karinger in his bedroom to play video games. They used to be mine. For my birthday that year, I’d been given new games on the condition that I hand my old ones over to Karinger. While we were playing I asked, “Why’d you freak out earlier?”
Karinger kept playing. His mouth was open and his eyes were watering. He hadn’t blinked in a while. I asked him again.
“I didn’t freak out,” he said. “Those old men are why people hate golf.”
“You were kind of stupid.”
“Look. Can we play this game or what?”
“Sure,” I said. “But can we go back and apologize tomorrow?” “Wow,” Karinger said. “Are you serious?”
“You messed up their grass pretty bad. It’s not easy to grow grass out here, you know.”
That last part was true. In the desert, it takes a certain knowledge and work ethic to keep a lawn green. One skill my dad taught me was how to maintain a desert lawn, how to keep the mower’s blade high. Too short and you can burn the grass at the roots. I never told Karinger any of that. I felt guilty talking about my dad when I was with Karinger, so when I was, I pretended our dads abandoned the Antelope Valley together.
Karinger paused the game and looked at me. The random yellow hairs on his face had multiplied since the morning. “You’re going to leave, too,” he said. “I can see it in your face. One by one, I’m going to watch everyone leave this place, aren’t I?”
“You can leave, too,” I said. “Don’t you want to?” And as soon as I asked, I knew the answer was no.
* * * *
“Let’s go make that apology,” Karinger said. He stood over me, backlit by the lamp in the ceiling.
“What time is it?” I asked. Outside, the sky was still dark. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “There’s no wrong time for an apology.”
“Robert,” I started, but I didn’t really have anything to say. I didn’t want to walk over to the golf course in the middle of the night.
“The groundskeepers will be around,” he said. “They’re the ones who have to fix the holes in the grass we made, right? They’re there all night, and we’ll apologize to them directly.”
“Sleeps through everything. Besides, you were right last night.” “I was?”
“Yeah. I feel really bad about the grass thing. I can’t sleep until we go out there and say sorry.”
I got up and put on a sweater. I was about to leave the room when I noticed Karinger had his 3-wood and his grocery bag in his hands. I asked him why he was bringing his equipment.
He said, “After we say sorry, we’ll be able to hit balls while no one else is out there. We’ll have the whole place to ourselves.”
I thought of Crocodile Dundee yelling at us for retrieving bad hits. I had to admit it would be fun to be out there alone, with an infinite number of chances to hit a good shot.
“Don’t forget your stuff,” he said, and I didn’t.
* * * *
Under the stars, the gate looked like the entrance to an old zoo. It was locked. Karinger tapped his club between the gate’s metal bars. He was thinking. I suggested coming back in the morning. He wasn’t listening to me. He was listening to the rhythm he was making with his club against the gate. Finally he slid the 3-wood between the bars and did the same with his plastic grocery bag. “Here,” he told me, and he took my club and bag and put them through the gate, too. He went to the knickerbocker boulder. He knocked at the rock with his knuckles and listened to the sound. “Guess I was wrong,” he said. “It is real.” He pitched himself up onto it. The baggy shirt made his stealth a surprise, and I watched the secret muscles in his forearms press against his skin. Karinger latched on to the top of the gate and heaved himself up over it. He landed on the other side with a thud that sounded painful. Immediately, though, he said, “Your turn.”
“I can’t,” I said. What I had meant to say was: What’s the point?
There was nobody there. No groundskeepers, no Crocodile Dundee. “Your turn,” he repeated.
I climbed onto the rock and up to the top of the gate. Falling from there to the cement on the other side was the hardest part. Karinger reached up and I reached down. He helped pull me to the pavement. When I landed, I still held on to him. My feet rang like my hands sometimes did when I hit a ball in a weird place on the club’s face. It stung a bit. It didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would.
Some of the smaller lights were still on, but the large stadium lights down the field were all shut off. Huge sprinklers showered the grass two hundred yards out.
“No one’s out here,” I said. “Let’s just go find someone. And if we can’t, let’s go home.”
“We’ll go hit a few balls,” he said. “Someone is bound to come find us. Then we’ll apologize, and all will be right with the world.”
“I’m going to leave now,” I said.
“Don’t,” Karinger said. I thought he was going to continue. I thought he was going to try to bully me into staying. I thought he was going to call me weak or lame or gay. But he didn’t. He just said, “Don’t,” and stopped there.
We found the giant muddy divots he’d carved out of the ground earlier. In them was a sandy mixture of seeds and dirt one of the groundskeepers must have planted. Karinger put down his grocery bag and took slow practice swings with his 3-wood. I did the same with my club.
“Let me have a ball,” he said, and I tossed him one from my bag. I didn’t even ask why he didn’t use one of his own.
He put his club behind the ball and took a quick swing. The impact sounded solid. The ball shot off into the dark, disappearing among the stars before we could see it land.
“Wow,” I said. “Great shot.”
Karinger was still holding his stance, the club over his shoulders.
“Really,” I said. “That was awesome.” I shivered even though I was wearing a sweater. Karinger stood there in a T-shirt like a trophy.
Then he pulled his club over his head and hammered away at the grass again with everything he had.
“Robert!” I said. I whispered it as if there were people around to hear us. “What is wrong with you?”
Karinger threw his club away into the field past the safety line and fell to his knees. He started clawing at the mud and grass with his bare hands.
“Stop,” I said. I looked to see if anyone was around. “Robert, please.”
He stretched his arm out to snag his plastic grocery bag. He started to dump its contents into the hole he’d made. Whatever was in that bag, he planned to bury. I thought, Kallie could fit in a bag like that.
With both hands, I lifted the 2-iron over my head. For a second I believed I might actually bring it down on Karinger’s skull.
But he emptied the bag, and what fell out—all the good white balls we’d collected—toppled into the hole, one on top of the other.
“Oh,” I said, dropping my 2-iron.
Karinger gathered the strips of mud and grass he’d unplugged from the ground. He placed them over the golf balls in the hole. He pressed with both hands and all his weight.
“Help me,” he said. He was crying—the first and last time I’d ever see that. I put my hands over his and we pushed the mud down together. For some reason I started crying, too, and the shame of that only made it worse. No matter what we did or told ourselves for the rest of our lives, this moment revealed the truth: We were not tough boys.
When the ground was as flat as we could make it, Karinger got up and walked over to pick up his wooden club, which he broke over his knee. Out of the broken shaft he made a cross and laid it over the mound. He said, “This is the last I’ll ever mention him,” though that wouldn’t, of course, turn out to be true. Then Karinger spoke to his father under his breath, and I couldn’t make out the words.
The sprinklers came on and we dashed out from the grass toward the gate. It didn’t take long for us to realize that without the boulder, we wouldn’t be able to hop over the fence and make our escape. The night was cool, cold because we were both dripping wet. Maybe we could have laughed, but we didn’t. Karinger stood with his head down and his eyes closed. I stared at him. In his baggy shirt, which was even bigger now that it was soaked, he looked like a kind of monk. We were quiet for some time. Then the east lit up, and we waited for men to open the gate.
From DESERT BOYS. Used with permission of Picador. Copyright © 2016 by Chris McCormick.