As sophomores, Clay and Delbert were both members of the golf team. Clay was varsity, Delbert junior varsity. Twenty years after graduation, they encountered each other in a parking lot in the suburb of Louisville where they both lived and they started playing golf together every other Wednesday at one of the municipal courses. Besides being divorced men careening toward forty in a southern city, they had nothing much in common. Even the word “municipal” could start an argument. As golf partners, however, they were surprisingly compatible. Each won enough times to stay happy yet dissatisfied, craving supremacy. Clay remembered himself as a significantly better player in college, but it wasn’t the case any more. Delbert was more accurate off the tee; Clay played with more touch.
Clay always declined Delbert’s invitation to hang out in the clubhouse bar after their rounds. The pickup-up scene wasn’t his thing. Delbert, however, was an unabashed troll and a successful one for his age. The only night Clay went along Delbert stranded him to go off with the barmaid. “Too good to pass up,” he said in lieu of an apology. What irritated Clay most was that the barmaid had been flirting with him earlier.
Clay had flirted back or at least, considered flirting back. It was a good sign even if he wasn’t ready to make a move. It meant he was getting over his divorce. He had been shell-shocked by how everything got distilled into what could be grasped. Marilyn got custody of the kid and that was okay. He loved Phillip but Phillip wasn’t interested in him. The kid was fourteen and no boy likes his father at fourteen.
Clay fought Marilyn for the house and got it. It was a single-level ranch style built in the 1950’s. He grew up in that house, and his parents lived there until they died. The next-door neighbors, the Howells, were like family.
Clay and his sisters inherited the house after their mother passed. It was in terrible shape. The foundation on the west side sagged eight inches. Ivy was coming through the walls. Clay bought out his sisters. It took him three years to restore it and three months for Marilyn to futz it up.
Good riddance to her.
November came and Clay and Delbert stopped playing. The winter was long. There was a big February snowstorm but on the first spring-like day in March, Delbert phoned and Clay eagerly pulled out his clubs, a thrill that was almost erotic. He forgot about his resolve of last November to find a more congenial partner.
It was an extraordinary day brimming with spring’s promise of renewal. There were still patches of dirty snow in the rough but the fairways were green and pristine. Instead of fiercely competing, Clay and Delbert encouraged each other and each broke ninety.
That perfect day gave their partnership a grace period of a few Wednesdays but it fizzled. Clay lost all patience with Delbert’s running at the mouth. No reasonably attractive woman could pass without Delbert making some crude remark. Then Delbert crossed the line when he began slobbering about Jessica, the seventeen year-old daughter of the Howells next door. Delbert had glimpsed her a couple of times when he’d come to pick up Clay. He started calling her “my beloved.”
One Wednesday in May Clay came down the steps from his house and found Delbert sitting in his car in front of the Howells’ house. As if it were a joke, Delbert admitted he was stalking, trying to get a glimpse of Jessica through one of the windows. “She doesn’t know I exist,” he moaned semi-comically as if that were something other than the pathetic truth.
Clay told him to go home and not come back. He almost said he’d call the police if he did. That was the end of their golf dates.
In the middle of the night Clay awoke from a particularly engrossing dream, awash in its emotions. In the dream a seismic event had taken place: a kiss, an amazing kiss. The person he was kissing, he realized, was Jessica.
For a few days he could not walk past the Howells’ house without feeling anxiety, shame, and a sweaty anticipation.
One afternoon Clay looked out his living room window and saw what he first thought was an illusion. There was Jessica on a ladder picking the yellow plums from the tree whose branches extended over his garden and the Howells’. Clay got his binoculars and gawked long fraught minutes. Jessica seemed to sense she was being watched and looked in Clay’s direction. She quickly descended the ladder and went inside.
There were still many ripe plums to be picked. He waited an hour to make it appear coincidental and then set up his own ladder on his side of the fence. He picked plums until he had filled two buckets.
The plums were in the recycling bin that he rolled to the curb when he next saw Jessica. She was in front of her house with some of her friends. They were all in shorts slung low and T-shirts cut high exposing their navels, chatting with a guy in khakis and loafers. The guy’s hair in the sunlight had the weird orange tint of a man’s do-it-yourself dye job. The man, Clay realized, was Delbert.
“Hi, Mr. Blevins,” Jessica called to him. Why “Mr. Blevins”? She had always called him “Clay.” Her friends tittered. What was so funny?
He and Delbert didn’t acknowledge each other, not even slightly.
Back in his house, Clay immediately researched legal age in Kentucky. He had to find a way to keep her out of Delbert’s hands.
“My beloved,” he whispered.