Mourning Dove

By Rafa Mowad

Artwork by Howard Skrill


 

Most of the course is wide and flat and the same color green as the algae at the bottom of a fish tank. The grass is soft like it, too, which you could feel for yourself if you took off your shoes on a humid day, and walked across it towards the pines. But it wouldn’t be worth all the grief they’d give you for it, because if they caught you in the act you’d be dragged inside by the ear, metaphorically speaking, so that all the old fat men playing golf wouldn’t see you. Because can you imagine what they would think, if they saw you. Without your shoes, I mean, or else outside when you should be inside with your nose in the mop bucket, scrubbing the stains out from under the sink in the guests’ bathroom, which isn’t even your job to do, anyway.

But that isn’t to say that the grass isn’t really soft. The nettles under the pines are softer, though. I caught Mr. Fletcher crawling towards them when he bought it out by the eleventh hole, where the lake is. Except he didn’t make it to the nettles, and died writhing on the grass instead. The lower half of him was still in the water, which I thought was a shame. Writhing is a good word to use for it, though. I found it out from a book Paige lent me. It makes me think of snakes, because that’s what the book used it to describe; snakes all twisting around each other in a barrel, and some of them getting choked out in the process, and ending up dead at the bottom.

Fletcher was also gasping when I found him. But that’s a word I’ve known for a while, gasping. Mouth opening up like a fish, open-close-open-close, and also the noise coming out of it. We’ve got a musical bass in the pro shop which does that, except the only thing that comes out of it is the chorus to Blue Bayou. There’s a little button to the side that gets it going. It says fin-tastic! on it, but the letters in the middle have been rubbed off. Sometimes you don’t even have to press the button to get it singing. Manny broke it last year when he threw a golf ball at the mouth, so now it sings whenever it wants to. It serves him right, except that now I have to hear it, too.

There was a lot of blood on Fletcher. I used to think older folks didn’t have as much blood running through them but I guess that’s not true, because I’ve never seen so much in my life. Just from his legs, too. But look at the veins of any old crow and you’ll see how shriveled they are, and black like telephone wires, so don’t ask me where all the blood is. They must be keeping it somewhere. All in the legs, I guess.

 

The old man came in for the first time three years ago. It was summer then, too, and I was still working six days a week at the pro shop. With the AC on full blast I was really cold, but they don’t give us anything with sleeves to wear. All we have are the white shirts. And also the skin on our arms, but maybe if I got a little vitamin D for once in my life I wouldn’t be so cold all the time, and I’d stop shivering behind the counter like a little bunny. Or this is what Manny said, when I asked if we could get sweaters. But he was only joking.

So I was cold, and Fletcher came in from outside with his grandson waddling behind him, and they were both sweating. And the bass was singing, I think.

Fletcher said something to me and then pointed to the grandkid, and laughed like it was a joke, but I couldn’t hear him over the bass. I did see his teeth, though. They were grey like rocks, and sort of hollow looking around the edges. He bought a pack of Bridgestone balls and a XS purple polo shirt for the kid, who should have been wearing a large at the very least, but how was I supposed to say that.

He came back later to return the polo for a medium in a slightly darker purple, because the one he bought before was too bright for a boy, he said, and pink’s a woman’s thing. Paige told me once that only kings and queens could wear purple back in the day, because it wasn’t cheap to make. The uniform she wears for the cafe is purple, but it’s almost pink. If she was a guy they’d give her something closer to indigo. I worked the cafe a few times and they gave me an indigo shirt, and she said that it looked good on me.

So I rung up the new shirt for Fletcher and swapped it for a return on the old, and while I was doing it he looked at my tag and told me that Peter was a good name, and that he hadn’t ever met a Peter he didn’t like. He also said that he was always flying back and forth from east Europe, for business, so he’d met a lot of Peters. But they spelled it different there.

Then he asked if I was Russian, and I said my granny was Estonian. Except I didn’t say that she was, I said that she is. So it sounded like she was still alive, and that was good for me because he didn’t ask me anything else about her, or ask if she was dead, or ask if she was dead and then start apologizing to me for it.

But he did ask me where Estonia was. I shouldn’t have had to tell him, but I did anyway. That’s the kind of person I am.

The kid kept running his slick little hands over all the shirts, until he got tired of that and started pressing the button on the musical bass over and over, so that it just got stuck on the first word of the chorus like a broken record. That’s enough right there to make someone want to go outside and take off their shoes, and run out into the pines. I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to do something like that, I mean, and I certainly wouldn’t put them on probation for it. Especially not for two weeks, if I knew that person had bills overdue. But that’s just my opinion.

I remember the day Fletcher bought the shirt pretty well because that was the week Maria was coming. Meaning Maria the hurricane, not Manny’s girlfriend Maria — but we all made our own jokes about that. Manny had put the weather channel on the TV that morning, and when they didn’t have anything else to say about the weather they ran this story on the zoo, and said that all the alligators had to be moved up north so they wouldn’t drown, or worse, break out and paddle into someone’s living room. It’d happened before, they said.

The kid stopped his assault on the musical bass for a half a second to watch this, and then he turned to me and asked if I’d ever seen an alligator in the flesh before. I said no. I didn’t want to start anything, if I could help it.

Then he said, Look at this, and came paddling over to the register like a little gator himself, to show me some video on his phone. So I had to stand there and look at this video of a pixelated twelve-footer walking across some course in Miami. I also had to say, Wow, that’s a big one.

I told the kid not to worry since Miami was farther south, and we never got any that big around here. He looked disappointed.

Then Fletcher tucked his American Express back into his wallet and said, I’ve seen a few big ones in my time, they never scared me much.

I didn’t say, The zoo doesn’t count, old man.

I said, Sure.

But I thought that he must’ve never seen one up close. People aren’t scared of things they haven’t been close to. Lightening looks a lot different from far away then it does when it strikes five feet away and blows out an ear drum. I’m not afraid of lightening, it’s only an example. Here’s another; Paige is afraid of the old coffee machine because it’s almost burned her twice. Manny’s afraid of dying alone, but only because he’s got this idea that Maria’s going to leave him after his thirtieth. And sure, I’m scared of some things, but not of anything I’ll say out loud. That’s bad luck.

I think it’s kind of funny that Fletcher said that to me about the alligator. I mean that in the old way, like how sometimes people say, Huh, that’s funny, or, You’re kind of funny. Not something to laugh at, I mean. Just funny because who would’ve guessed that it would happen to him. Sixteen years running without an animal attack on the grounds, too. What a case of bad luck.

But it’s because he jinxed himself and said it out loud, and something other than me must have heard.

 

In the mornings, Manny and I have to clock in at the hotel before taking the cart down to the course. My bus is always late, so by the time I get there he’s already waiting for me outside with the cart running, and then he blames me for wasting gas.

You can see part of the lake from the road. The water looks really dark from there, with a fog rolling over it like in movies, so it’s not hard to imagine a lake monster or something coming out of it. It’s that kind of lake. They shot a horror movie on the grounds last year but the manager didn’t let them use the lake, because they wanted to pump all this fake blood into it. He said that it would harm all the natural flora and fauna. That means the algae and the minnows, in that order. Some gators, too, but those are pretty hardy. I don’t know why the manager didn’t just say algae and minnows. Maybe because the director would have said, Fuck the minnows. The director was that sort of guy. He came into the gift shop once and knocked over a miniature glass replica of the hotel, and didn’t say sorry for it, and then I cut my finger on one of the pieces.

Just because they didn’t turn the water red doesn’t mean I can’t picture it that way. Sometimes I do. There is also a lake monster, as I already said, with fins and claws. It is very realistic the way I make it. There are gills on either side of its throat, and they make a wet noise when they open and close to let the air in. But this monster doesn’t come out of the water — it stays in the reeds where it’s dark, and looks like a dead thing. Sometimes I have to look away.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the lake the morning I found Fletcher. Mrs. Hughes had flagged us down on the road so we gave her a ride to the spa. She sat on the back of the cart and smoothed her white apron down with her hands. I remember that because her apron was so white it was glowing, and I couldn’t help but look. When it’s that early, everything glows. The kitchen staff glows when walk up from the parking lot all dressed in white, and when they wave at us their palms move in the dark like doves.

They waved at us that morning. Then Mrs. Hughes turned and asked, How are you, young boys? Even though Manny is close to thirty. I know, because I’m always hearing about it from him.

He said, We’re tired. Then he yawned to prove it, and then he laughed a little. Enough that I could see the side of his teeth. There’s a little black spot on the right canine, just under the gum, but it’s too dark to see it in the morning. At the start of our shift his teeth are just as white as his shirt, and just as clean. Or at least I can pretend they’re clean. I like this time of day because I can look at Manny and not have to think about all the rot creeping up into his gums where I can’t see. It’s almost the same as it not being there.

 

Once we got into the locker room, Manny took off his shirt and sprayed a line of deodorant from the inside of his arms down his ribs, on both sides. I didn’t mean to look too long, but I guess I did because he said, What? It’ll be ninety- five today, I need the extra layer.

I was brushing my teeth when he said it, but I could still see him in the mirror. I didn’t say anything, and Manny put his shirt back on. Then he sat down on the bench to change his shoes, all the while going off about Maria, but exaggerating all the vowels in her name so that I would know he was angry at her over something. He’s like the singing bass in that way; you don’t have to do anything to get him going, and it’s the same chorus all the time.

I could smell Manny’s feet over the scent of my cinnamon toothpaste. That’s the smell of the locker room, really; cinnamon and feet. I think it’s not a bad name for a rock band, except for I don’t play any instruments, and I don’t listen to music much. It’s only that I’ve seen some of these band names up on billboards while riding the bus. My bus goes slow enough that I can read them all the way down to the fine print, even when there isn’t any traffic. That’s another thing that drives me wild. Or it would, if I was that kind of person.

I asked Manny why he didn’t just wear his tennis shoes to work instead of changing them every morning. He asked me why I didn’t just brush my teeth at home, so I spit and told him that I did. I just liked to brush twice, once before breakfast and once after. He thought this was really funny, in the ha-ha sort of way, and picked on me for it all the way to the cafe.

 

Paige was sitting down at one of the tables when we walked in. She had her head in her hands, and a cup of coffee steaming by her elbow.

Manny asked if she was alright. She lifted her head and said that yeah, she was just tired.

Then Manny poured himself some coffee in a paper cup and went to sit next to her, while I leaned against the drink machine and watched. He peeled the lid off a creamer, and flicked it at the front of Paige’s shirt.

He said, Your man’s coming in today.

Spare me, please, she said. Is it Mr. Firstwife?

That’s what we’ve called Fletcher since day one, after Paige had brought him a bloody mary on the patio and he’d lowered his sunglasses to look at her and said, You know, my first wife was a redhead, too.

Paige picked the creamer lid off her shirt and stuck it to the side of the table. It’d left a little stain on her but I didn’t say anything. She took a pocket mirror out of her purse and started to draw on her black eyeliner. The way she does it is with two little wings above both eyes. It’s how old movie stars used to do it, except their wings were even on both sides, and not so thick. She finished just one eye and then turned to look at me, and asked how I was doing. With her looking at me like that it was like one eye was naked, and I was seeing something I shouldn’t be. I had to turn away, but I still said that I was doing alright, and that this was my first day out of training, working the course full time.

So she said, Good for you.

Paige is nice. Even when saying things like, Good for you, but she stares a lot and that makes me sick to my stomach, and sometimes I have to sit down after seeing her. Manny said that she stares a normal amount and that I must just be in love. I asked if being in love would ever make a person nauseous, and he said that sometimes it does. So I guess I’m in love.

The truth is that she makes the air go stale. Sometimes she stands too close and it’s like I’m suddenly in a hot room with all the windows closed, and I can’t breathe. Or I can breathe, but it’s a crowded room, and the air’s already been through everyone else’s lungs and I’m the last to get to it. Maybe that is also a part of being in love.

Fletcher came in early that day. He came all by himself, and said it was because he was only in town for a day. Then he said something about the weather, and asked Paige for a cup of coffee with some ice thrown in, so that it wouldn’t hurt his gums. He called her sweet pea, like he knew her, and then asked for extra caffeine. But I think he meant that last part as a joke. Or at least he laughed like it was a joke, but it was funny to us because we only ever give people decaf. If we don’t they’ll dehydrate and pass out on the course, or else get too wired and start yelling at people.

After Fletcher had his coffee, I brought him outside and gave him the keys to the cart. I loaded the clubs into the back while he stood looking out at the course. He said, There’s just nothing like it, huh?

So I said, Sure. But there isn’t anything special about our course, and I’ve seen nicer ones inland. I didn’t say that, but it sounds like the kind of thing I could say if I grew up to be an old businessman with gum pain and a phone clip attached to my belt. I’d shrug and say, There isn’t anything special here, I’ve seen better inland. There wouldn’t be anything rude about it because I wouldn’t be on anyone else’s clock, just my own. I could say whatever I wanted to.

Fletcher smiled and gave me a pat on the shoulder. The sun was out by then so there was no avoiding all his slick, grey teeth, but I could have avoided the pat if I’d just stepped out of the way fast enough. But I was too slow.

I found him a little after noon. I saw Manny smoking a joint behind the kitchen, in the security blind spot, and he told me to check the flags. So I went out to check the flags.

The eleventh hole is far away from everything else, so it’s no wonder nobody heard him. You can scream and yell all you want from there but you’ll only scare a few doves out of the trees. That was idea for the horror movie. It’s secluded, so the scout thought it would be realistic. He told me that they were going to kill a girl there. Not a real one, of course, just a dummy for the movie. I said that it was a good place for it.

I’ll admit that one of the first things that ran through my head was, I wonder what this’ll do to the flora and fauna. I’d followed the yelling and found him half in the reeds, gasping and squirming around. He had a sort of beached look, I thought. I’m not stupid, but if I was I would’ve thought that he’d crawled out of the lake and was itching to get back in. Because that’s how fish move when you pluck them out of the tank. They flop around, and start gasping for water.

I’ve heard of gators that can bite a limb clean off but that isn’t what happened. This one had left Fletcher’s leg half on, but cut up in vertical stripes like ribbons. There was no gator that I could see, so I guess he’d already gone back in. Or I might have believed it was the lake monster who’d done it — but I’m not stupid, as I’ve already said. Everyone knows there’s always a gator or two hiding out in the lake, so why someone would walk right up to the edge was beyond me. I only got that close so that I could see what was going on. He got quiet all of a sudden when he saw me, and for a second I could hear a mourning dove cooing somewhere up in the branches. If you took Fletcher out of the scene you could almost call it peaceful. We’re far enough from all the city traffic that all you can hear is the wind blowing and the cicadas, and also the birds.

Fletcher reached out for me. His shirt rose up so that I could see his pale, grey stomach, and with all that blood and rubbery skin I couldn’t help but think of a dead fish; belly up, or cut open on the table like a book, so it can be cleaned. I got too close, and the next thing I knew the old man had his hand around my ankle, and I was falling down on top of him into the muck. Somewhere during all of this he’d started calling me son, saying, I’m alright, son. There was also a choking sort of noise under that, like crying, so I guess that must have been me. There wasn’t anyone else around who it could have been, I mean.

Then he said, Son, I think I’m ok, but I knew he was losing it because he kept saying the same thing over and over again, and he wouldn’t let go of me. I couldn’t get him to shut up, either. I yelled at him to shut up, and then I covered his mouth with my hand, which stopped it for maybe half a minute, but there was still all the splashing around.

By the time he let go I was covered in a dozen or more ugly things, most of it being the blood that was blooming up all over my shirt in patches. Our uniforms are mostly white, as I mentioned earlier. You can see everything on them, and it’s impossible to get a stain out once it’s set. It isn’t anything to laugh at, either, because you only get two pairs and it’s sixty dollars they take out of your payroll if you ruin or lose one. That’s almost half a day’s work. I was twenty minutes from the locker room at least, and that was more than enough time for the stains to set.

 

I was right, because when I got back and put my uniform under the sink the blood wouldn’t budge. It was like the last six hours didn’t even happen, I thought, because I wouldn’t be getting paid for them. I threw my uniform in the trash and put on a spare. Then I started scrubbing my face and hands. Blood stains the skin, too, but you can’t throw that away. You just have to keep working at it — but not too much that you scrub through it, because that would defeat the point.

The right thing to do would have been to keep my dirty clothes on and tell someone about Fletcher. The better thing to do would have been CPR, or something like that. I wouldn’t know. All I know is that the things that good people are meant to do are always the hardest, and they’re also the things which dirty you up the most. I don’t see the justice in that, really. That you should have to put up with everyone calling you a bad person, when all you’re trying to do is stay clean.

One of the locker room windows was open, and I could hear another dove outside cooing. Or maybe it was the same one, I don’t know. It’s the season for them. They like to park it outside windows and coo because they’re lonely, but I don’t know what they expect me to do about that. Granny used to have one outside her window. She’d get me to lean out of it in the morning to put some bread on the branch, and one time I fell and broke my collarbone. But she had me keep doing it, because she couldn’t do it herself.

She said that it came by because she was lonely, and that she and the bird understood each other, but I thought that was stupid because of course it was only coming for the bread. And it wasn’t really a nice thing to say, because how could she be lonely when I was there all the time listening to whatever she wanted to say, whenever she wanted to say it.

When she died the bird went away, but that was also around the same time I stopped throwing bread out for it. Still, I thought that was funny. Not ha-ha funny, I mean it in the other way. She died in her room with the window open, so if the bird was there I would’ve heard it. I think that’s worse than having someone die in the hospital, because at least when someone dies in the hospital you aren’t all alone, after. There are the nurses, I mean, and all the other people in the other rooms either waiting to buy it or waiting on someone else to. And when someone flatlines all the nurses come in, so you don’t have to call anyone yourself. In that way they do all the hard work for you, but you have to pay them to do it. If it’s family then you don’t have to pay them.

 

In movies, when someone quits they say, I quit, really loud so that everyone can hear, and sometimes they take off their apron or badge or whatever they’re wearing and slam it down on the table, so that it makes a sound.

But it’s easier to just leave, so I left. I didn’t have time to make a show of it anyway, because the bus only runs every hour, and if I didn’t get it right then I’d be stuck for another fifty-five minutes, and wouldn’t know what to do with myself. There would be all kinds of commotion, too, because by then someone would find the body and call all the ambulances and the police and reporters, and someone might stick a microphone in my face, and try to get me to talk. In the movies they say, I won’t tell you anything! But you can’t say that in real life because it makes you sound crazy, and they could lock you up for it.

I saw two girls on bikes on the way out. They were riding the pavement up towards the hotel, and they both had sweat stains all over their pretty tops. Manny had been right about the heat. I was sweating, too, which was a shame because I had just put on a clean pair of clothes.

The girl lagging behind had red hair and a kind of saggy, soft stomach that spilled out under her halter top, like a little slice of the moon. Her bike started to wobble, and then she rolled off into the nettles and said, Wait, the gear’s stuck. But the other girl had her headphones in, so she kept going. The stuck girl said, Really, wait. She was balancing kind of helpless on the bike, like on a tilt. If I pushed her over just then she’d tip like a cow onto the asphalt, and be half crushed under the bike spokes. And there would be a good amount of blood, if I were to do something like that. But why would someone like me want to do something like that.

When the girl turned and spotted me on the street, she wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and said, God, it’s boiling out.

I said, Yeah, and then wiped my forehead with the back of my hand, too. I also smiled at her. A big smile, so that she could see all my white straight teeth like I was a horse for sale. That’s how girls look at you, like they’re inspecting you to buy. So it’s good to give a big smile. Or so I’ve been told.

The gear unstuck before she could smile back I guess, and she rode away. In the place where she used to be was a space between two pines, where I could see some of the course and some of the sky, too. There was also a little dove cooing way up at the top, looking down at me. I wanted to pick out a rock to throw at it, but before I could I saw Manny as small as an ant on the course, running after me, and waving his arms around like he was flagging a bus. I thought that I could hear a siren, too, but it was very far away. The dove was cooing louder than that, maybe twice as loud.

So what could I do except stand there listening to all that noise, stuck into the ground like a stupid old garden rake. Too much noise, I thought, and the kind you can’t even plug your ears to get rid of. That’s enough to make anyone feel crazy, I don’t care who you are. It’s enough to make you feel like you could boil over or something. Like you could just unravel from the head down, and blow away with the next little breeze like so many torn red ribbons, or paper, or something else that anybody with a dustpan could just sweep up, and throw away.


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