Sometimes, the senior caddies at the club carry doubles, “dubs” as we call it. It’s two bags at the same time, one on each shoulder. For twice the money, you get two golf balls, twenty-eight golf clubs, and two golfers to account for in your mental ledger.
My most memorable round carrying doubles occurred at the beginning of last fall.
There are several pairs of brothers that are members of the club, but only one pair of twins—the Wilsons, Matthew and Mark.
In their sixties, Matthew is properly known as Father Matt Wilson. He’s a Catholic priest and the pastor of the St. Lawrence church down the road from the golf course.
Thanks to a stint as a tank commander in Vietnam, Mark is properly known as Colonel Mark Wilson—"The Colonel" to the other golfers. After retiring from the military, he became the executive of a vacuum cleaner company.
The Wilson twins are not difficult to tell apart. Father Matt wears glasses, is fit from his marathon training, and has a strikingly straight set of teeth, while The Colonel is taller, with a belly, wears imposing sunglasses, and has hands so muscular and powerful they seem swollen.
It was in early September when I carried doubles for the Wilson brothers. It should have been a quick afternoon twosome.
The bells of St. Lawrence struck twice as we teed off. St. Lawrence is an old church and has real bells. Other churches in town have artificial PA systems that broadcast bell-like noises.
We were on the sixth hole when Father Matt asked me, “So, where are you these days?”
I explained to him that I was trying to become a writer. The Colonel asked enthusiastically, “Like Louis L’Amour? I loved those stories when I was a kid.”
I told the twins how I had a friend from high school named William, who grew up in a house bordering the golf course. I said how William spent time in South Africa a few years ago and while he was there he lived in a house outside Cape Town that had no electricity. They had to use paraffin lamps for illumination. I said that I asked William what it was like to live under lamplight.
“It smelled like a Louis L’Amour novel,” he said.
The twins laughed and enjoyed that one. The Colonel began confiding to me about his professional struggles after leaving the Army and entering the private sector.
“Is that William Wringham you’re talking about?” Father Matt asked. “I remember him from the parish when he was a boy. ‘Dubs,’ was his nickname, wasn’t it? What a serious young man. Did I hear he—?”
“He’s at home right now,” I said.
“He’s returned from Afghanistan then,” Father Matt inferred.
“I think he’s going to start college again in the fall,” I said.
“Poor boy,” said Father Matt.
“Who’s this?” asked The Colonel.
“Just a boy from the parish,” said Father Matt, sheltering William under a cloak of anonymity within which The Colonel could not inspect the quality of his character.
The bells of St. Lawrence struck three.
We were now at the corner of the golf course that bordered William’s family’s home. Growing up, some people said he was my doppelganger, a more daring version of me. Even now he also had a thin beard and long, slicked-back hair like my own.
William, like me, was once again living at his parents’ house. I had kept in touch with him only briefly and superficially since high school. He often sent postcards for me to my parents’ home. He had never graduated college but instead roamed the world collecting interesting experiences and then placing the crystalline memories of those experiences into his menagerie of disappointment. I envied the courage he had to act, with however much resignation he carried himself, instead of my tendency to stand back, to think and observe.
He had most recently returned from Afghanistan, where he had been a marksman in an infantry squad. It seemed like he had returned too soon, less than a year after I had heard he left. Prior to the Army, he taught English in South Korea; drove sled dogs in Alaska; trained as a falconer in South Africa; studied for a semester each at Deep Springs College and at St. John’s College; and worked on an organic farm in Brazil.
He invited me over to his mom’s house, to “The Island,” as he called it, a couple of times earlier that summer to swim and play chess, to drink and smoke. It was now his mom’s house, but his dad had once lived there before killing himself in the garage with carbon monoxide while William was a sophomore in high school. His mom was now there just occasionally, as she had remarried. William’s grandfather quietly lived in the basement.
It was unnerving to be around William, as it seemed he felt that he, in his life, was now walking down a corridor that was getting impossibly cramped and distorted, that there was no way to reverse himself, and the only way out was ahead through a door that was becoming absurdly miniature. It was like the scene from Alice in Wonderland, but that comedy was now a tragedy sitting next to me on a patio chair, running his hand through his greasy hair and picking his fingernails, sipping cocktails, smoking cigarettes, occasionally reading with his sunglasses on a passage from A Hero of Our Time or Twilight of the Idols or Infinite Jest and marking his page with winning but unclaimed scratch lottery tickets or prayer cards saved from funerals, rising only to gaze over the edge of the pool at his reflection and ask me to ask him what he was looking at. He would respond by saying, “Nothing.” He would then dive in for a swim, pull himself from the pool, and dry off in the sun with another cigarette and a fresh drink.
I did not want to ask him what he was going to do with himself when the summer was over the way I did not as a child want to walk down into the unfinished basement of my parents’ home when it was nighttime.
“Hey Timmy, thanks a lot for visiting,” William would say as I got up to leave his house. “We’re going to be saints someday, my friend. Saints in the Church of the All-Sacred Nothing.”
The most recent time I visited he gave me a gift as I was heading out. It was two empty magazines for a rifle. “Here you go, my friend. Kid-tested. Mother-approved.”
The Wilson twins and I were at the seventh tee box, only a few paces and a leap over a fence from William’s swimming pool. I could hear someone doing laps. There was classical music, Wagner, playing on a radio. It must have been his grandfather, who only came out to swim when William was gone.
The men hit their tee shots and The Colonel continued to explain how he overcame the difficulties of being a young man returning home from foreign adventures, unsure of how to get along in the world and to make something of himself.
As we walked to the green, I saw smoke rising in the distance beyond the golf club, from where the bells of St. Lawrence had tolled.
I was next to The Colonel and told him to look.
“Something’s burning,” he said. “That reminds me.” He turned, reached into his golf bag, and removed the re-sealable plastic bag that held his cigars, cigar cutter, and lighters.
Father Matt looked at the smoke. “Looks like it’s from the downtown,” he said, before stroking his putt, which he made to save par.
The men completed the front nine as sirens sounded in the distance. We stopped at the halfway house and snacked on crackers, cheese, and peanut butter. The Colonel was drinking a beer. Father Matt was drinking a ginger ale. I was back in the kitchen with a sports drink.
I stepped outside to walk to the bathroom of the halfway house. I could see Lou the Pro driving towards us in a golf cart. He pulled up to the patio table where the men were seated. I walked back into the halfway house so I could eavesdrop.
“Father. St. Lawrence is on fire,” he said.
Father Matt stared downwards for a moment at the ashtray where his brother had been tapping his cigar. He stared and was perhaps inwardly smirking at the irony of the fate of his church and the fate of his church’s eponymous martyr. How many times had Father Matt given a sermon about the fortitude and good humor of St. Lawrence as he was roasted over the flames in San Lorenzo? Or perhaps Father Matt was just smirking at the irony of how several parishioners had complained he spent too much time training for marathons and playing golf at the club, and now here he was away from the church in the moment it most needed him.
Earlier that afternoon, Father Matt had walked to the club from the presbytery. He returned to the church in Lou the Pro’s golf cart.
I carried the twins’ golf bags to the clubhouse. The Colonel jogged ahead to sign my pay ticket before driving to St. Lawrence in his convertible.
As I was walking home that afternoon, the sirens still going, the smoke seeping high into the air, a patrol car sped past me, then just as aggressively hit its brakes.
I was brought into the police station.
Witnesses said a man my age, with a beard and longish hair, was seen near the rear of the church, near the dumpster, before the fire began.
I thought it must have been a coincidence. William had mentioned to me he was tutoring at St. Lawrence’s elementary school this summer. He must have been leaving just as the fire began. Or was this the next experience he was going to collect? To smash the idols, to raise hell?
I remembered then the times William and I spent together that summer, the chess, the swimming, the drinks, the cigarettes. I thought of it and thought of this suburb, our hometown, and its insistence on the insurance of all surfaces, its persistence through the preservation of all appearances. I felt it all, as the sirens’ wept through the walls of the police station.
I felt everything, with nostalgia, and with nausea.