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I distinctly remember the day my life started smother-hooking toward Hell. It was just another day of gentlemanly golfing competition among the Chops at Ponkaquogue Municipal Golf Links and Deli, known across the land as America's worst golf facility. It was our usual fivesome: Two Down, Hoover, Cementhead, Danniethe hot-tempered, hot-blooded little five-handicap who also doubled as my wifeand me.
"Are those shorts heavily padded?" Dannie asked Cementhead.
"What's it to you?" Cement said.
" 'Cause I'm about to give you a serious butt-kickin'."
Across the way, the hyper Leonard "Two Down" Petrovitzhalf-man, half-cappuccinowas locked in mortal combat with me in a game of $20 one-down automatic press bets. Of course, he couldn't have been too worried, since he was beating me like Liza's ex. I'd given him half a shot a hole, plus a hundred-yard head start on every hole, plus one throw a side. And yet, just because he was beating me didn't mean he was going to stoop to any gamesmanship.
"I see you changed your putter since last time," Two Down observed. "I guess that last one didn't float so good."
"Keep it up, Chirpy," I said. "And you'll be joining it."
Ponky was famous around Boston for three things: 1) Being full of morons who bet way more than they had; 2) Being to golf what Velveeta was to French culinary schools; 3) Being next door to one of the great courses in America, the blue-blooded high-hatted Mayflower Club, whose members were so choosy about who they accepted they simply stopped letting people in three years ago. The line around town was, not even the original Pilgrims could get into the Mayflower now.
Since Ponky and the Mayflower were built in the 1900s, one by Donald Ross and one by Ronald Rossa small mistake made by the city fathersthe two courses had moved in opposite directions from birth until one became the very symbol of posh blue-blood aristocracy and the other of fried-egg SPAMwiches. Now, the only thing that separates the Mayflower and Ponky is a twelve-foot-high redbrick wall, a whole lot of deb balls, and general good breeding.
The Mayflower was so stuck up it had refused to even host a U.S. Open or a PGA or a Ryder Cup, despite being begged. Never, that is, until five years ago, when it agreed to finally lower itself to play host to the greatest players in the world at the U.S. Open, which would descend upon it the following summer. Not that they didn't have events. They had their lavish "Pilgrimage" every year, and their "Heritage Hoopla" and their "Member-Member" (never a member-guest). And whenever they hosted such prestigious events, they rented Ponky's course out to park all the Bentleys that strutted through. For the month after, you'd get tire-track lies in the middle of the fairways. But what could we do? We were privately owned by the cheapest man in the worldFroghair.
Froghair got his name for his length off the tee, which was none at all. He averaged about a buck-eighty. He was straight, though, so we said he led the tour in FIR (Froghair in Regulation). Froghair would rent Ponky out to Islamic Hamas if he thought he could get an extra thirty-seven dollars out of it.
It always delighted us to see those Numeralsyou know, your Worth Havermayer III and your Gray Stoneham the IVget out of their cherry cars and take a look around at the eighteen-hole municipal dump that is Ponky. We loved to watch their faces react in horror at the course we played every day, the abandoned '57 Jell-O green Chevy near the 8th tee, sitting as it did just under the half of a Boston Globe billboard that jutted out over the tee box. We giggled to see them hurry away from our battleground practice range, where bad golfers hailed cut, yellowed practice balls at Nuke, our range boy. Froghair wouldn't pay to have the range tractor fixed, so Nuke was out there, eight hours a day, wearing two twin-size mattresses roped together and fitted to his skinny body, a lacrosse helmet with face mask, and a shag bag in each hand. ("Hey," Froghair always said in defense, "the kid's a stoner. He doesn't even feel it!") And it gave us a kick to see Boston's gentry get an eyeful of the unshaven community outside the Ponky fencesthe pawnshops and strip bars along our 18th hole bordering Geneva Avenue, the ratty blue-collar cemetery out our front windows, the spirited youth who populated the Roosevelt Park Projects off 5 and 13, having their innocent fun with needles and small-arms fire.
Over the last one hundred years, every inch of this part of Dorchester had gone from debutante to drugstore whore except the Mayflower, which just kept building its walls higher and higher until it couldn't see out anymore, which is just how they liked it.
But screw them. I wouldn't have traded one of them for a single Chop. I loved Ponky. I guess because my dad was a member of the Mayflower and, until the last three years, I hated my dad the way mailmen hate Dobermans.
Anyway, on this particular Thursday, it was the usual cast of x-outs and out-of-round humans who probably should've been taken out of play years before.
One hundred and twenty yards behind us, Hoover, our fifth, was taking his sweet time hitting his shot, despite playing against nobody for no bet at all.
"Why don't he hit the goddamn thing already?" Dannie said, exasperated. "He's already pulled a JFK Jr."
"What's a JFK Jr.?" asked Cement.
"Three lost in the water."
"I believe it's your turn, Hoov!" Dannie yelled, knowing all the while that there was no such thing as "turns" at a free-for-all etiquetteless joint like Ponky. It'd be like one hyena saying to another over a downed zebra, "I believe it's your turn, Herman!"
But Hoover was back in the fairway, on one knee, holding his latest gadgetthe new GPS-enabled SuperTech Bushnell Laser Range Finder 3000up to his right eye and making sure the yardage was exactly 176 and not 177 even though Hoover could not hit a green from 17 yards much less 177. He was going to get his yardage all lined up and then smother-toe it left or hosel it right or cold-top it five feet. There was a reason we called him Hoover. He sucked.
"What are you, Patton?" Two Down yelled. "Hit the fuckin' ball!"
Hoover rose and yelled back, "Seven percent of all shots fail due to lack of precise yardage! That was in this month's Scientific Golf America!" Then he stepped up and chunked it about twenty yards, or about two yards short of his divot.
"And 93 percent of all shots fail 'cause Hoover sucks like Linda Lovelace," Dannie said to nobody in particular.
So here we were on the 17th, with me down three, down two, and down one to Two Down and needing this hole to have any chance of saving the Claudette Coldbeer fund.
Still, Two Down was lying four. I was lying two right in front of the green. He was taking a long look at his difficult sand shotall sand shots at Ponky are difficult on account of there being no sand in Ponky's bunkerswhen he announced, "I haven't had my throw yet, right?"
I was hoping he'd forgotten.
"Yeah, that's right," I grumbled. "You get one throw a side."
And Two Down got out of the bunker, walked over to my ball, picked it up, and threw it over the twelve-foot-high hedge into the Mayflower Country Club. Then he returned to his shot without comment.
One really needs to think out all bets with Two Down in advance.
As we came to the picturesque 18th hole at Ponkywith its unforgettable view of Manelli's Dry Cleaners on the leftI was down two hundred dollars all day to Two Down. I needed something big on the last hole to bail me out.
"Two, I need a get-even."
Two looked at me and said, quite firmly, "Okay, you know what? No."
"But you haven't even heard it yet," I said.
"Unless the get-even is you chew off your left hand before you play this last hole, I don't want any part of it."
"No, it's better than that. I'm offering you a simple wager."
If there is one thing a true Chop will not turn down, it's the offer of a simple wager. A true Chop will bet on all things at all times. Would that guy eat his ear of corn like a typewriter or in a wheel around it? What odds will you give me that I can't chip one onto the clubhouse roof, run around to the other side, and catch it my mouth? (Odds were set at twelve-to-one against.) One time, on a rainy day, Two Down and Dom bet ten bucks on who would swing first on Jerry Springer: the blimp who was about to find out her daughter was screwing her son or the two-toothed dad who was finding out his hunting buddy was in love with him.
Offering Two Down a simple wager was like offering a wolf a pork chop. Half the reason he came to Ponky from his brief exile in Chicago was that nobody would play golf with as many bets on the line as we did. They'd just play the standard two-dollar Nassaus. No comp presses, no indies, no greenies, sandies, barkies, or even barfies, in which if the player can finger-barf on command, he can play the shot over. So that's why he came back to us. That, and the fact that his wife divorced his ass.
And so I cast out my bait: "I'm a little longer than you off the tee, am I right?"
"Does Michael Jackson subscribe to Boys' Life?" he said.
"Exactly. I'd say I'm about fifty to seventy-five yards longer than you, on average, with the driver, yes?"
"Yeah, and you're about two hundred dollars down to me, too, Mr. Two-Time Massachusetts Junior Amateur Runner-Up. So shut the fuck up and hit."
"Right. Well, here's the bet. I tend to swing only 75 percent with my driver. I think I can be three highway exits past you if I wanted to. In fact, I'll bet you two hundred dollars that you can't knock it past my drive from this tee box in two shots. Frankly, I think you'll choke like Mama Cass."
This got Two Down's famous ADD eyebrows to itching. Two hundred dollars was a lot for a guy who was working as the clubhouse assistant at America's only all-women's golf club, Boston National Ladies Golf. Come to think of it, two hundred dollars was a lot for me, a guy who wrote greeting cards at twenty-five dollars a pop.
"Two shots," I said.
"Who goes first?"
"Well, it's your honor. We stand on tradition here at Ponky, naturally."
"Naturally," he said. "Two shots?"
"You're going to hit your ball and I'm going to hit my ball and neither of us gets to hit the other guy's ball, right?"
Cementhead was starting to get annoyed. "Damn, you guys. People have circumcised the globe faster than this."
We both looked at him.
"Circumnavigated the globe," I said.
"You sure?" he said.
Two Down was back in my face. "Golf ball, not any other kind of ball? Not nads, right? Today? Here at Ponky? Right now?"
"And if I can get past your single shot in my two shots you'll pay me two hundred dollars, U.S. legal tender, stacking zops, today, back in the clubhouse, right?"
"Bank," he said.
This set off much whooping and taunting and side-betting among the other three members of the fivesome, as is custom. And then Two Down stepped his wiry little Polish ass up to the tee and put his usual unfilmable quickslash on his ball, which produced his usual 190-yard-long, two-feet-high bunny-raping line drive that could go under a 1977 Datsun. "I see you've gone to a higher-lofted driver," I observed, stepping up for my shot.
"Blow me," he said.
I teed my ball up nice and high and began to waggle my driver. I waggled and exhaled and waggled some more. Then I stepped away, pretending to reassess my shot. Then I went around to the other side of the ball and began waggling the club again, only in the complete wrong direction.
"Ray, hole's the other way," Cementhead said.
I said nothing. I just drew it back and slapped the dimples off it, about three hundred yards back up and over the T-tracks, over the group putting out on 17, over the fourteen-foot-high hedge separating us from Mayflower and God knows where from there, perhaps into the matching Louis Vuitton purse of Mrs. Carter Annuity III, playing in the Ladies C-Team Nine-Hole Golf and Tea-Cozy Group approximately 490 yards from Two Down's ball.
I looked at him. He was struck mute. The blood abandoned his face. He looked like a man who'd just been stabbed in the foot with an icepick. Dannie was laughing so hard she was bent over the ball-washer, crying. Hoover was smiling. Cementhead was befuddled.
"Damn, Ray, how's he's gonna catch up to that in only one more shot?" he said.
Two Down turned and stomped off down 18. Dannie was now down on her knees. Cementhead was scratching his thick skull. "Wait, explain something to me."
"Okay, Cement," I said, walking with my arm around his shoulder down 18. "Shall we start with the alphabet?"
As we putted out on 18, we got the usual snide comments from The Voice. Nobody knew the guy. Nobody knew his name. He was supposed to just announce over the PA who was up next"Crumpacker, eight minutes" and the likebut he could never help adding his little chippy remarks. For instance: "Mr. Finster, you're up in sixteen minutes. Oh, and Mr. Finster? Woodrow Wilson called. He wants his pants back." He was pretty funny, The Voice, until he noticed you. "The group coming down 18?" he announced to us then. "Bad news: There's a job fair coming to town. You can hide at my house."
But the bad news was worse than that and it was very real. It came the next day. I knew it as soon as I saw Blind Bob's face. He was regripping his ball retriever.
"You should sit down."
"How do you know I'm not?"
I started to feel a little lightheaded.
"Yeah. It sucks huge, doesn't it? He's getting out. He's selling the course and moving to Florida. Joining a nudist colony."
"Yeah, Stick. Selling Ponky. Selling P-O-N-K-Y."
I was trying to catch my breath. I guess I completely passed over the disturbing idea of Froghair nude and went to the truly paralyzing news. Ponky was my happy placefive bets riding on every shot, cold ninety-five-cent beer anytime you wanted, and hilarious guys who didn't want to tell you how their Google stock is doing every fucking day. I was happy at Ponky.
"To who?" I managed.
"He doesn't care. Probably won't get much for it. Who wants land that was a fill once? Maybe some cheap-ass developers. Maybe the Mayflower would want it. Pave it over so people have a nice place to park when they hold the U.S. Open next summer. Real nice for us."
I was starting to feel a little queasy.