Painted Bears

....By Larry Lynch


Warren's jacket rode up and exposed his hairy back every time he bent over to replace his ball on his crooked tee. Take a coat, his mother told him. Go early and practice, his father said. Warren tucked in his shirt and looked to see if anyone was watching him. I'll make some sandwiches for you to take, his mother offered. Don't embarrass yourself, his father urged. An awkward swing drove the ball twenty yards through the wet grass. The ball made a soggy, hissing noise as it threw up a rooster tail of mist before it stopped. One.

Warren had risen at 5:00 AM to drive forty-five minutes to the course so he could practice before the staff scramble was to start an event he habitually skirted. He looked at his feet as he walked to his ball. Golfer's feet, he thought. The wheels of his cart and his in-turned feet left a meandering and unsure seam on the glinting dew. His cuffs were damp. Green pants. Too much green, he worried. Green jacket. Green shirt. Tuck your pants into your socks if the grass is wet, his mother advised. No one counts the first shot unless it is a good one, his father told him. His second shot was marginally better. One again.

Warren added his name to the roster on the office bulletin board, but had no real intention of playing. The vice-president and his wife, and Julie from the mail room that was who Warren got grouped with. That was why Warren was going.

Julie. Tissue bulged from the pockets of the sweaters she wore. A pink sweater and a blue one; sweaters with long sleeves and fuzz balls and white pearl-like buttons. Long sleeves to cover an unusual, hairy birthmark on her forearm. He noticed it the first time she brought mail to his desk, when her sleeve rode up her arm, when he was trying not to make eye contact with her. Allegiance in peculiarity. Shot two in the rough. She pushed her glasses up her nose when she bent over to get mail from her cart. Three across the fairway into the rough on the other side. She turned to find him watching her once. Four into the woods, under a small, dripping tree. He flushed. She flushed. A half-smile, he imagined. Five back on the fairway. Water from the dripping tree trickling down his neck. He could feel himself inching closer to speech. Six in the bunker. Closer to asking. Seven still in the bunker. A date, perhaps. Eight on the green. Intimacy. Four putts for a twelve.

**********

Warren's mother had a key to his apartment. The day before the scramble, he arrived home to find her ironing his green pants. His father was putting balls into a tipped over Styrofoam cup in the living room. His mother had already washed his dishes and sorted his laundry. She had hung a painting in the living room above the sofa. As long as Warren could remember, the painting moved from closet to closet, from shelf to shelf at his parents house never thrown away or hung on a wall. Flea market art. Clouds billowed in a too blue sky above a savage river that traced the base of a mountain. A painted bear and its cub waited to swipe an oil-on-canvas fish.

"Your walls were too bare. I thought it would look nice. Your father brought his clubs for you," his mother said.

"Watch this," his father called from down the hall. A ball rolled past the cup and thudded against the stereo. "I made one from the bedroom a while ago, didn't I, Agnes?"

"I didn't see it, Henry," she answered. "I was doing the dishes."

"Sure you did. I said, Hey, look!, and it went right in. All the way from the bedroom. You saw it."

"I heard it, Henry. It sounded like a great shot. He made one all the way from the bedroom," she said to Warren. "Try these on, will you, dear?" She held up the pants. Huge. Green. His father hit the stereo again.

"I already know they fit," Warren told her. "You'd better try them on," she said, and pulled at his snug waistband. "You're getting as big as your father."

"Your floor is crooked," his father called as golf balls collided around the cup and against furniture.

Warren took the pants to his room. His father was bent over a putt in the doorway. "The key is to keep your head down," and he launched another ball across the carpet. "See. Right there by the couch. The floor is crooked."

"Try that shirt on, too," his mother called from the kitchen. A golf shirt lay on the bed; green, the price tag still in the sleeve. Two Xs on the tag.

"How do they fit?" she called. Warren dressed quickly. He knew she wouldn't knock and would soon be in his room tugging at his clothes, examining and smoothing creases.

"It's too big," he answered, and instantly she appeared.

"Keep your head down," his father said to no one. Thump.

"It looks great," she said. "The pants are a little tight," she said, plucking puckered pleats. "But the shirt is very nice. Come see, Henry."

"Yessss! Another one! Did you see that, Agnes?"

"The collar is too big," Warren told her. He tried to arrange the shirt so that not so much dark hair from his shoulders and back sprang above the collar.

**********

A breeze with just enough impetus blew Warren's comb-over into his eyes. The sun escalated, burning off the mist, and concentrated on the back of Warren's neck. He removed his jacket and stuffed it into his bag. A sweat-painted V extended from his collar to between his shoulder blades. His shirt came untucked on every swing. No time to go home and change. Getting too warm for a blue sweater. Or a pink one.

**********

"Take a hat with you, dear," his mother told him.

"Use the yellow balls," his father said, "they're easier to see."

"Do you have sun screen?" his mother asked.

"Is that girl from the office going?" his father asked. "What's her name? Juliet?"

"Henry!"

"What? There's a girl from the office Warren's got his eye on. Janice or something."

"Julie," Warren mumbled.

"Just go and have fun, dear."

"Show her how to hold your putter...."

"Henry! Don't listen to your father, dear"

"What? I was only saying..."

"I know you. The way that mind works..."

The conversation spilled from his apartment, echoed in the hall, reddened his face, until the elevator took them away. The refrigerator hummed. His head throbbed. Golf balls littered the carpet. Bears waited patiently by the painted river.

**********

On the next hole there was a small pond. Very small. And not at all close to the fairway. Warren hit one of his father's yellow, highly visible, easy-to-find balls into the pond. A shallow pond. A few lily pads. Frogs. But no yellow ball. Only his green reflection that disappeared in a swirl of muddy ripples when he fished along the edge with his club.

Two older men played their balls to a point on the fairway near to where Warren looked for his ball in the pond.

"Found the water, did ya?" said one.

"Yes," said Warren.

"Hit another one from the fairway and play along with us. You'll never find that one."

"You go ahead of me," Warren insisted, and put is head down and continued to stir the pond. He hiked up his pants. His underwear was sticking where it shouldn't. Before long the men were out of sight and Warren stopped searching. He debated quitting.

Warren's next shot, from the fairway with a new ball, veered deep into the woods. He bulled his way into the brush. His golf bag snagged on branches. Pitch from the fir trees matted in the hair on his arms. A limb sprang back and struck him across the bridge of his nose, watering his eyes. In a small opening, he thought he spotted his ball. Then another, and another. All highly visible, easy-to-find, yellow balls. But he found only small apples speckling the ground. Golf ball size, greenish-yellow apples. Hundreds of them scattered under crooked and maimed trees.

A tree shook and more apples bounced to the ground. On the other side of the tree, Warren met with the hoarse and panicked bleating of a bear cub. The cub ran. Warren tried.

**********

The scramble started without Warren. Without Julie. She canceled without explanation. The vice-president found Warren with an errant shot. Four parallel gashes from Warren's forehead to his chin had removed one of his eyelids, part of his top lip. His forearms were mutilated. His shirt was vermilion threads. Protective, motherly incisors had punctured Warren's hands, neck, back, and scalp. Rotting yellow-green apples, pitch, blood and grass, all hardened to a paste paint on a hairy, bloating canvas.


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