There’s a flagpole by the first tee and its flag gets lowered to half-mast when a member dies. It was like that one Saturday this past June, on the same day that Dean, a caddie in his mid-twenties, came to the course handing out cigars, as his wife had given birth the day before.
We weren’t sure which member had died. There’s a game the caddies play in which we think of a foursome of members who most fit into some category like: “high maintenance,” “stingy but kind,” or “knocking on heaven’s door” and so on.
Mr. Gasper had recently made it into the “knocking on heaven’s door” list this year as he got stomach cancer and was quickly losing weight and fading away. He had been the club’s most obese member, known as a sort of waddling old crank that had to swing his golf clubs around his oversized stomach.
After we’d signed the list that morning, Mel brought down Gasper’s heavy, leather golf bag to the caddieshack, a bag that’d strained shoulders for decades. He said Gasper was the one who’d passed and that his golf stuff had been donated to the shack.
Once Mel walked back up top, we ripped open the pockets of the bag and pulled out the clubs, balls, and tees, as if disemboweling it, everyone taking a scrap for themselves, leaving the junk, like Gasper’s old scorecards, like his sweat-stained, stretched-out gloves, spilled out on the ground.
Mr. Gasper had been a local real estate developer. He created dozens of suburban subdivisions of both single-family homes and condominiums. These subdivisions had names like “Graceful Oaks”, “Sunset Farms”, and “Autumn Crest.”
He lived in a mansion that was next to the club. It was a summer tradition of caddies to sneak into his backyard at night and peek into his cathedral-ceilinged living room. Up and down the walls were dozens of hunting trophies—the processed heads of domestic and international game, of deer, moose, and bears, and gazelles, buffalo, and zebra. There was even a rhinoceros and a hippo up there, too.
Sometimes Mr. Gasper would be sitting in that room while we’d sneak up towards it, lit up in the blue glare of the TV. Luckily, his chair faced away from the large bay windows, his bald head just peeking over the top of his recliner.
Mr. Gasper was a local celebrity and had a seat reserved for himself at the nearby Chili’s restaurant, which despite his wealth was his favorite place to eat. The managers there bought a personalized, brass plaque for him, mounted it over the table he liked, and guaranteed him immediate seating from 5 pm to 8:30 pm.
One of the condo subdivisions that Mr. Gasper owned was where Dean lived. Dean had graduated from the local evangelical college, sold insurance at Northwestern Mutual for a few years, but then quit and began working as a substitute teacher and doing a Masters in education in the evenings. He got married right after college and the baby his wife just had was their first. He came back to caddying once he started subbing and had summers free again.
Saturday morning is the busiest time of the week at the club. On the first tee there might be up to thirty golfers and thirty caddies chatting and stretching, sipping coffee and squinting in the early light.
Once the caddie has his golfer’s bag, he has to stop by the bag room and get a caddie card from the assistant pros. The caddie card is where the golfer signs the tip and evaluates the caddie’s work on a scale of one-to-four, four being the best. As such, both the golfer and the caddie have a stiff little card onto which their round, their day’s unique, nuanced, personal experience, is condensed into a whole number.
Then the caddie brings the bag to the edge of the first tee box, sets it down, and waits for the golfer to emerge from the clubhouse. When the golfer approaches, the caddie goes and stands near the bag, putting his hand on it like a parent putting his hand on the shoulder of a child. The golfer and the caddie shake hands, introduce themselves, and then the golfer takes some clubs and walks down to the driving range to warm-up for fifteen or twenty minutes.
As such, the caddies still have pockets of privacy within which to continue the usual shack chat.
Big Tom Wrigley was lying down in the shade of the one old maple tree along the first tee. An elderly member walked past Tom, pointed to his graceful recumbence and said, “Now that’s the kind of life I want.”
Tom scoffed at him as he walked away and then complained how his bag got switched, how he was supposed to caddie for Mr. Stuck, who’s a swaggering, glasses-wearing loudmouth, but got changed to Mr. Meeks, who’s an over-serious, glasses-wearing nerd.
“I just got so downgraded. They gave me Meeks. Meeks is such a, such a… boring nothing! I need some excitement in my life, " Tom said.
Timmy Tourette’s was at his golfer’s bag and had taken out the putter. The club had a jumbo-sized grip on it made of a squishy, “Better Than Rubber” polymer.
“I feel like I’m holding a wiener,” Timmy said.
Dean was talking about his wife’s labor. A couple of caddies asked why he was even at the golf course right now. He said he asked his wife if she wanted him to stay at the hospital this morning or to go and caddie. She said they’d need the money. Dean also said that, back in the springtime when Mr. Gasper was just starting to get sick and was still able to play eighteen holes, Dean had told him he and his (pregnant) wife lived in the Hollydale subdivision that he developed. At the end of the round, Gasper gave him a $500 tip and said to save some of it for the kid.
As Dean was talking about the water breaking, drive to the hospital, the contractions, the calling the family members, etc. a little fantasy sprouted inside my head. It involved the girl—the friend who later on in the summer called me just-a-boy-living-with-his-parents and onto whom I put unwanted romantic moves, the friend living off in France, the friend who, despite my melodramatic and long-winded agony, was just Not Interested—being pregnant herself, with my child, and as Dean continued talking, my daydream unfurled into this girl being in labor, in a suburban hospital bed, sweaty and pushing and squeezing, and me being there by her side as she gave birth.
I walked away from Dean as the fantasy wilted and died and I went over near Surly, Lorena, and Robbie. They were standing in the shadow of the club’s lowered flag.
We stood in that flailing shade and told horror stories about Mr. Gasper, about the obese demands he put on the caddies, about the flabby way he played in competition. We each saw him in our minds, the fat man he used to be, lumbering over our neural pastures, sweating in the heat of our synaptic afternoons.
I said how just last week his usual foursome (a foursome with a combined age of almost 300 years) was playing without him, but then one of the members took out a cell phone and called Gasper on the eighth hole, asking if he wanted to come ride along with them for the back nine, or to get lunch at least afterwards. Once he got off the phone, the member shook his head, said Gasper was feeling very weak. The golfers all made a solemn grimace and then hit their tees shots and continued on with the round.
But on the eleventh hole, just about 45 minutes later, I could see a golf cart coming towards us. It was Mr. Gasper, driving this lightly humming, battery-powered carriage, back from the void, back from the back of our minds to ride along as the golfers played and the caddies worked, as we lived and he sat, withering, wasting away in a windbreaker that was now several sizes too big for him and draped over his torso like a pall.
Robbie said how he’d seen Gasper in the golf cart recently too, just driving along, not playing, and how lethargic and out of it he was, just mumbling vague, confused complements. We started piecing together a “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” absurd collective daydream, of Mr. Gasper falling asleep like Grandpa Simpson, of him keeping his foot on the gas and driving right up onto the green and slowly crashing into the flagstick as the rest of the golfers and caddies just stepped out of the way, wide-eyed, shocked, or of Gasper driving up over a mound and into a bunker, tipping over into the sand but asleep the whole time and quietly snoring.
As we giggled and laughed at those lewd visions, Surly then went into a faux-sermon about what hell is like for a golfer. He addressed us as his “dear little brothers in caddying” and conjured this picture of an infinitely crowded golf course, of having to sit for an eternity between each shot, of the course being filled with copies of yourself, all your old rounds of golf, you then bumping into yourself, waiting for yourself, the golf course being a “dark prairie of the past”.
But then the golfers came back up from the driving range, the first groups went to the tee, and we had to split up and quiet down. Some of the players mentioned Mr. Gasper, but no one seemed too upset or worried. Many of the golfers were congratulating Dean and taking the cigars he’d brought. My golfer said his group was going to start on the back nine, so the other caddies and I picked up the bags and headed off.