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The day The Bet began to assume its hideous form was the day Hoover lost $208 to his shadow, which is a lot of cash to drop for a man who takes the bus to the golf course.
Hoover wasn't much to look at. Dannie said his mother must've had to borrow a baby to take to church. He sort of looked like that skinny guy in Westerns, the one that's always first out of the saloon whenever it looks there's gonna be gunplay. For somebody who was supposed to be Italian, he was white as plaster of Paris and looked like he tanned nightly under a 40-watt bulb. Two Down saw him in shorts one time and said, "And now, students, your circulatory system at work."
He had this Lettermanesque gap in his teeth, a little red hair that he covered up with one of those Jackie Stewart racing caps, skinny white arms that were mostly elbow and a score counter on his belt, which had been rubbed shiny with use.
Come to think of it, Hoover wasn't even his real name. We called him Hoover because he very much sucked. After most rounds, he was awarded the puke-orange Naugahyde La-Z-Boy in the Pit of Despair, reserved for the day's biggest loser.
Hoover's real name was Alberto de Salvo, which also happened to be the name of the Boston Strangler. That figured. Hoover apparently had all his luck surgically removed as a small boy.
Still, Hoover loved the game. He had every color book Harvey Penick ever wrote, including the Little Red Book, the Little Green Book, the Little Shoebox of Stuff Harvey Penick Forgot the First Two Times, the Little Blue Two-Volume Videocassette featuring the 13 Most Important Things Harvey Penick Asks You to Remember at the Moment of Impact, and the Little Fuchsia Book: New Stuff Harvey's Agent Wanted Him to Include.
Hoover would spend sleepless nights worrying about shaft kick points. He actually knew what his swing weight was. He was obsessed with equipment. He would no sooner have just received his boron-headed, titanium-shafted Big Bertha in the mail than he would banish it to his trunk and bring out a brand-new, French-bubble-shafted, graphite-headed Whaling Wendy, which, unfortunately, the factory forgot to de-shank, and so then he'd have to dump that and go to his mercury-loaded, airstream Colossal Cathy.
He was some kind of MIT scientist and somebody said his IQ was 153, which goes to show you golf is not a game you want to think too much about. Bless his heart, Hoover thought way too much. He believed in a person's inner "chakras" and had his adjusted after very bad rounds. He tried pneumatic balls, which actually did add 15 yards to his drive, until it got hot and they started exploding in his bag, which caused most of the guys in his group to dive for cover, thinking the darling youngsters that live in the Roosevelt Park projects off 13 were spraying the course again for amusement. After that, he played nothing but Titleists 8s.
"Wh th fck you nly ply Ttlst 8s?" Thud (the Almost Human) asked him one day with his mouth occupied with his ninth fried egg sandwich of the day.
"Because," Hoover told him. "The number eight is the only perfectly aerodynamic number you can get on a golf ball. Any other number will affect the flight."
"Rt. Nd I'm Jck Fckng Nckls." Thud munched.
As much as you wanted him to succeed oncejust onceit was hopeless. He would take the club back very, very, very slowly, stop halfway up, raise his elbows straight over his head and twist his body like he was trying to win Hernia of the Month. Then he would come crashing down at the ball in hopes that maybe it would not have time to see him coming. Dannie said he sort of looked like a man trapped in a moving car with a bee. His goal was to shoot his weight, which was 105, but he'd never done it. Of course, he'd only been playing Ponky seven years.
And after each horrible shot or bad break or terrible round of high-tension golf, Hoover would plunk himself down in the puke-orange La-Z-Boy, loose a large sigh, fling his Jackie Stewart cap toward the hatrack, miss and say, "Rats get fat. Good men die."
"What does that mean anyway?" Cementhead asked him once after he'd put up a double radio station.
And Hoover said, "It is the universal and ultimate order of things. It means that hard work, diligence, patience and good deeds aren't worth anything at all. It means the centers of things do not hold. All is chaos. It means karma is dead."
And Cementhead asked, "What does that mean anyway?"
Still, Hoover had a will. You could beat him like egg whites and the next day he'd be back, doubling the bets, convinced the breakthrough was just around the corner. He'd say that "a person's golf swing can only truly be foolproof when tested under pressure," and we'd all very much agree and pretty soon he'd be taking all the action we'd give him.
The day Hoover dropped the $208 was one of those early September afternoons that can't decide whether to be summer or winter and the usual suspects were hanging around. The Stringley brothers, slower than refund checks, had teed off just in front of us. The Stringley brothers were these identical eighty-five-year-old twins who only played against each other and always for the same action: $1 a hole, instant whip-out, although nothing the Stringley brothers did was instant. You'd be behind them and you'd see one of them totter up to his putt and gag it in and cackle what he always cackled: "T-t-t-t-t-take a s-s-s-s-s-suck a that!" And then the other one would begrudgingly hand it over.
"Me and Stick in forty years," said Two Down.
We had our own usual games goinggiant skins, carryovers, incest, $10 two-downs, double the backs, Alohas (double everything on 18), a game or two of Las Vegas, complimentary presses whenever and wherever the hell you felt like it and unlimited junk, which was anything else that you could dream up.
The usual and absolutely nonnegotiable assortment of penalties and assessments were in place, set forth by Two Down many years ago, encased in plastic and blue-duct-taped to the top of the corner table in the salmonella paradise of a lunchroom known to us as the Pit of Despair.
Schedule of Fines
Hackalooski (player with higher handicap giving player with lower handicap advice)...$5
Ernest and Julio (excessive whining)...$2
Hit and Whip (player hitting a bad shot and blaming another player in the group)...$5
Venturi (analyzing your swing too much)...$2
Each logo over the one-logo limit per player...$1
Double plumb bob...$1
Purposeful, willful and distracting talk of pooni...$3
Once in a while, with his 40 handicap and his chakras fixed up nice and his Jackie Stewart on snug, Hoover could get into your Hanes pretty quick. And that's what happened that day.
He had me down $25, Chunkin' Charlie down $40, and Two Down down a good $100, and had accepted absolutely free and complimentary presses from all of us. Not only that, if he double-bogeyed out, he'd break 100, which would be on a par with a lobster climbing out of the tank at Jimmy's Seafood Grill, taking the stage and whistling the entire score of Cats.
"Gentlemen, we shall be stacking up some of that flat tender in the Pit of Despair very soon," Hoover said, beaming.
Chunkin' Charlie was up first on 15. He hit a very good drive and gave it the big Walter Hagen pose.
Charlie: "Boys, if you like golf, you gotta like that shot."
Me: "Right. Until you find it in an old Hunt's can."
Two Down: "You'll probably have to play it out backward."
Charlie: "Five says I make par."
Me and Two Down: "Bank."
Now it was Two Down's turn. He hit his patented screaming low hook that would've sailed under a '63 Valiant and not touched earth or oil pan.
Now it was Hoover's turn. He was just about ready to take the club back when Two Down said a very hideous thing.
"What?" Hoover said.
"You probably know more about the golf swing than anybody here, right?"
He still wouldn't look up.
"Well," said Two Down, "don't you think it's funny that you never see your shadow during your swing?"
"Kindly go fuck yourself," replied Hoover, not moving an inch, head still, knees bent, eyes peeled on his Titleist 8.
"Well," continued Two Down. "I mean, in golf, everybody is supposed to stay perfectly still and nobody's supposed to breathe so you have absolutely no distractions. But then right in front of you, your own shadow is going through all kinds of contortions, going this way and that, all the time, and yet nobody ever notices it during the swing."
"Do you mind?" said Hoover.
"Actually," said Two Down, "I guess if you did notice your shadow, it would help your swing. I mean, you could see whether your club face was a little open at the top or whether your elbow was flying or all kinds of stuff."
"Double fornicate yourself," answered Hoover.
But this last was said with a clink of doubt in his voice, as though maybe Two Down's words had seeped into his cranium and were bouncing around with the Pythagorean theorem and double quark Pi and everything else he had in there. Here, a scientist who had devoted most of his life to the understanding of golf and all its tangents had never thought about the proper use and purpose of the shadow during the swing.
You could see his mind working. Why is it that nobody notices their shadow? Had he ever even seen his shadow during the swing? He let his eyes steal away from the Titleist 8 to look. There it was. Plain as day. Why hadn't his shadow ever bothered him before?
In a fair and just world, Hoover would've stepped away from the ball and somebody would've told a joke or mentioned the weather or reported the news that Thud recently broke his record for the longest urination in Ponky history last week when he peed so long his foursome had to let two groups through. But nobody did.
Hoover stayed frozen over the ball, had to be forty-five secondsand everybody stayed quiet.
At last, he started to take a swing, his shadow square in front of him. It looked like an innocent little swing at first and then about two feet back he lurched a little. Then, at the top, he gave it an industrial-strength downward lurch, so that now he resembled more a Navy signalman landing a MIG on an aircraft carrier than a golfer.
The ball, confused, went about 8 feet up and 6 feet sideways, bounced off a sick-looking pine tree nobody had hit in the history of Ponky and drowned itself in shame in the pond in front of the tee box.
I still believe that if Charlie and me hadn't been there, Two Down would have been the first man in Massachusetts golf history strangled by a resonant-resistant, Loomis-blend Meaty Martha.
Hoover stayed silent. We stayed silent. Hoover reloaded and set up again, but there was a fabric of dread draped over the moment. This was not like somebody jangling keys or pumping cart brakes. This was a shadow and it would be back again tomorrow and the day after that. Worse, it was his shadow, a sinister prank pulled on him by his own scrawny body. Naturally, Hoover saw it again and pile-drived another Titleist 8 into the pond.
One thing for sure, the synapses and nerve signals that sent messages from Hoover's brain to Hoover's body were completely severed. Hoover was now a man without logic. He could not escape the sight of his shadow. He drop-kicked another one in a glob of mud, smother-toed one into the Murkwood Forest, then sliced one over the Elcar fence, off Manelli's dry cleaners and under a sky-blue '85 LTD. He was lying 10 and still on the tee. Breaking 100 was now history.
Naturally, in a moment like this, any true friend, any caring person, would stay quiet.
Two: "Now you've got it corrected, Hoovs."
Chunkin' Charlie: "Hey, Hoovs. When you go find that one ball, can you check and see if my shirts are done?"
Then Crowbar hit him with some movie dialogue: "You're not too smart, are you? I like that it in a man."
Cementhead: "It Happened One Night?"
Crowbar: "Body Heat."
Hoover wasn't listening. He was digging out more golf balls. He Gretzkyed two more slap shots into the pond before he finally bent the Meaty Martha over his knee and snapped it, Bo Jackson style. He took out his 8-iron and bellied one barely over the pond and into the fairway. He enjoyed an 18.
For the next two holes, the brooding Hoover was tormented by his shadow. He could not help but see it. And even when the sun was to his back and he could not see it, he was afraid he might see it. He was a very good candidate for the centerfold in Psychology Today.
He was on his way to losing all those presses and the complimentary presses and whatever other jing nightmares that hadn't occurred to him yet. The horror of the thing that he'd done was starting to mount up inside his eyes, like somebody was starting a bonfire just behind his forehead.
He sat down on the 18th tee and put his face entirely in the palms of his bony hands and his eyebrows seemed to slide off his forehead and come to rest just level with his nose, and he was basically just a lot of black clouds and red hair. He looked like a man who had just backed over his own dog.
"Rats get fat?" Dannie asked.
"Good men die," I said sadly.
"Don't worry about it, Hoovs," said Two Down helpfully. "You won't have the same problem tomorrow."
"Why?" asked Hoover darkly.
"Because," said Two Down, "it's supposed to be cloudy."
And that's when Hoover went triple O.J.
Chops officially recognize two kinds of mad. Joan Crawford Mad gets you helicoptering clubs and looking for wet places to throw your worthy opponent. O.J. Mad is when you are so mad you begin turning in a circle, trying to decide whether to drive your cart into a lake, rip off your clothes and throw yourself on a barbed-wire fence or calmly walk over to the stone wall and begin smashing body parts against it, some of them your own. What you usually end up doing is something painful like losing a crown biting as hard as possible on your putter or purposely taking one shoe and spiking the other and missing, thereby painfully piercing your ankle.
Hoover stalked over to his bag, took out his ball retriever, telescoped it out all the way and began walking toward Two Down, who backed away slowly toward the eight-foot hedge that ran behind the tee box and protected the Mayflower from us.
"It's just a game, Hoovs," said Two Down.
Hoover had him backed up against the hedge. He set up like Yaz, screamed wildly and took a wild swing at Two Down's head.
Naturally, dodging an eighteen-foot ball retriever is a very easy thing to do and the retriever missed Two and whipped violently into the hedge. But this did not deter Hoover. He continued to whack against the same spot, despite the fact that Two Down was well out of the way. Hoover was not going to take any shit whatsoever from a hedge.
Finally, the retriever felt enough was enough and refused to come out. Hoover and Chunkin' Charlie grabbed the retriever right at the edge of the hedge and yanked. Nothing. Hoover, Charlie an