BY RICHARD AULT
Copyright is held by the author.
FANCHER FASTENS the long rope to the golf ball retriever he crafted out of an old iron rake and an old bicycle basket, and makes his first “cast,” a tentative early morning toss that flies about twenty feet out into the turbid pond.
He lost Mrs. Fancher to breast cancer just this past November and did not come down from Michigan to the Florida rental condo until February instead of their normal New Year’s Day arrival. People, including his daughter Vera, counselled him to take things slowly following the death of his wife of 53 years. At 79 years of age, he was told he should take his time grieving, maybe not even go to Florida this year. Others said it would be good for him to get away and spend time with his snowbird friends. At least the weather would be better, they said. He had some details to tidy up regarding Mrs. Fancher’s passing, and some ice fishing to do on their little lake, and decided to stay a while, but sitting alone in his fishing shanty, staring into a black hole in the ice gave him too much time to remember things, time to become aware of how alone he was and how she had always led the way.
He will have to find out for himself if he can make it down there without her, he thinks, and calls the condo management company in Florida, arranging a rental to begin the first of February.
The municipal golf course is not busy on this chilly day in the Florida Panhandle. Fancher’s full head of strikingly white hair is caught by the chill morning wind. Mrs. Fancher, whose own dark hair had grown back a pale grey after she first lost it to the chemo, took personal pride in the whiteness of her husband’s hair and made him use a special shampoo to keep it that way.
He shivers slightly before starting to reel in the rope, dragging his homemade rig across the bottom of the pond, his cold hands sensing bumps along the way, a lot like fishing back home, but without the ice. He had pretty much given up ice fishing after he and Mrs. Fancher retired from teaching and began spending their winters in Choctaw, but, for a while, he found he enjoyed it again. Still, it was just too damn cold. Two-below when he left the Soo.
Down here in winter he has always enjoyed a game of golf even though he was never very good at it. He takes pleasure in the walk, the joshing of his companions. He likes shopping for golf gear, uncovering a good find at a good price. His favourite thing about golf, however, is and has always been finding balls, causing consternation for his playing companions as he fished balls from the ponds with his 10-foot store bought retriever or lingered too long hunting through the trees or long rough, even after hitting his escape shot. Gradually his other golf interests have given way almost entirely to looking for balls.
Although he’s a sturdy man of square construction, built close to the ground, he is no longer confident of his balance so his stride has become a shuffle. Now he goes with the guys and pays his green fee, but then drops out when they reach a sufficiently isolated pond where he can just hang out with his rope and his newly constructed rig.
He hauls it in and smiles at the success of the day’s first try. In the basket are eight wet, dirty balls, six whites, an orange and a yellow. He drops them on the ground next to his feet and makes another throw. They’re biting today, he thinks. The cold wind is picking up. People think Florida is always warm, even hot, but not in The Panhandle in February — a lot of days in the 60s, maybe, but some freezing days too — better than the Soo, but not like south Florida. A cold, windy day like this on the course means not too many golfers. Doesn’t have to hide out so much. Only an occasional ranger passing by.
It is not long before he accumulates enough balls on the ground, shovels them into a black plastic garbage bag, and hides them under some nearby shrubs.
You fool. What a waste, she says.
In just the few weeks he has been here, bags of balls piled up in the guest room of his two-bedroom condo. In past years, while he still played but foraged by more conventional means, he carefully culled out the best balls, meticulously cleaned them, sorted them into egg cartons, and sold them as previously-owned to golf courses and golf shops. He no longer bothers, just piles the bags up in the condo unit without ever looking at them again.
Is this what you are going to do with the rest of your life?
He answers with a chuckle as he hurls the rig again. A little farther out this time, a new fishing hole. Fourteen balls.By noon he has three large garbage bags hidden under the bushes. The plan had been to rejoin his foursome on the back nine, but fishing is too good this morning. He never thinks of it again until he checks his phone and sees they had called three times. He rings Jake back.
“Where the hell are you?” Jake says. “We quit early on account of the cold, and we knocked down a couple hot brandies in the club house.”
“Three bags,” Fancher says. Jake laughs and relays the message. Fancher hears his buddies laughing. “You’ll find me where you left me but I’ll be hiding in the bushes,” he says. “Bring a cart out. Lots of bags to load.” He has to laugh at that himself.
It’s much warmer in early March: sunny and mid to high 70s, low 80s. His daughter, Vera is here for a week’s visit, she and Eleanor, her 14-year-old daughter. No husband/father. Vera divorced him years ago.
“The place looks like crap, Dad,” Vera says.
“We can’t even move around in the guest room, all those bags of balls. And loose ones rolling around on the floor.”
“Sorry. Should have got them out of there before you came.”
“But why all the balls anyway?”
“You hardly play anymore.”
“Good question,” he says.
“Mom would be all over your butt and you know it. “
“Ellie and I can’t stay in there.”
“I know. I’ll move them.”
“We’ll help. Right, honey?”
Eleanor takes her eyes off her phone, forces a little smile, glances toward her grandfather, stuffs the device in the back pocket of her cut-offs. The three of them haul the heavy bags into the master bedroom.
“Geez, what a mess,” Vera says. “You’re the one who won’t be able to move now.”
“I’ll be fine,” he says.
They stay the week, spending almost every daylight hour on the beach or at the pool. Fancher mostly stays inside, sorts some of the balls, just as in his former life.
More like it.
Mrs. Fancher liked the pink balls. Even while she was sick, at least until near the end, she played on Tuesdays as his partner in the little three par nine-hole league. They shared a squat body type and were a cute, hefty pair on the links where she used the pink balls he culled out especially for her. Fancher himself prefers yellow, easier to spot in the rough. As he sorts, he separates the best of the coloured Titleists and Taylormades, Callaways, and Top Flights — pink, orange, turquoise, robin’s egg blue, fuchsia, yellow — from the whites, just as he used to. He also stacks and restacks the full bags, attempting some sense of order — to little avail. Two of the bags had even found their way into the kitchen.
Pick up those balls on the floor. That’s dangerous.
While he cleans and sorts, he reflects on his visitors. He is surprised at his own lack of consideration. When Mrs. Fancher was alive, he took pride in being considerate. Now he feels guilty for ignoring his own daughter and granddaughter, for not being more a part of their visit. He wants to be a good father and grandfather, but, face it, he has come to like his solitude. He will be both sorry and glad when they are gone.
At the end of the week, after he drops Vera and Eleanor at the airport, after Vera urges him a final time to give up his “hobby” and come back up north, where, she says, she can keep her eye on him, take care of him, buy him a puppy — after that he drives straight to the course, parks in the lot nearest his pond of the day. No longer any pretext of playing golf. In high spirits, he launches his rig, happy that he hasn’t grown rusty from the week off. Fifty yards out, he reckons. Chuckling, he hauls in the first basketful.
He spots the ranger headed in his general direction. He retreats into the bushes, bag in hand. He sits down out of sight, and waits for the ranger to pass.
Alone now, he chuckles again and stays there, sitting, smiling.