I arrived at the Allendale Hospital parking lot just as a foursome chipped onto the third green at the golf course across the street. It was close to lunch and a near cinch I would miss mine. I figured I would be lucky if I got my own practice round in that afternoon in preparation for the upcoming tournament. The ambulance crew had brought in a homeless man found by the Sheriff’s deputy out on the bypass. The patient had no identification on him and, according to the nurse on the telephone, was dying. He had muttered something that the intern on duty had deciphered as a Yiddish word, and the doctor had asked the ER nurse to call me in and see if I could give them some help.
A nurse showed me to a curtained cubicle where an ER intern filled in what little he knew. The physician was short, cold, and humorless. I figured him to be a third generation doctor with a guaranteed slot in his family’s highly successful specialty practice somewhere.
“Rabbi Schwartz, isn’t it?” I suspected he recognized me from something recent in the paper; maybe my picture with the Hospice Golf Tournament article that had appeared a few days before. He didn’t introduce himself, and I didn’t recognize him. Most likely, he had not been on staff long.
“I’m he. Can I help?”
“Probably not much.” We thought this man might be Jewish. He said something like ‘Shalom’ or some such word.” The physician didn’t seem sure that he would actually know the meaning of the word if it indeed was the one he described.
“How did you get him?” I asked.
“Police. Homeless a long time by the looks of him.” The intern’s voice placed a definite stress on the word homeless. He was pressing to get on to other matters which he obviously thought more important. He did not seem to notice that his patient had stirred and seemed to be wakening.
“No beds available at the moment,” the doctor said, “not that it matters much. He has too much going against him. Must be seventy-five or so, had a pretty bad heart attack; some emphysema too. Probably liver damage from alcoholism–they found a near empty rum bottle on him when they picked him up.” There was no indication that the intern had any plans to move the patient out of the emergency room.
The doctor was interpreting his Hippocratic Oath a little loose for my tastes. I decided to press him to see if any compassion squeezed out.
“Aren’t you admitting him?”
He caught my tone and took up a professional offense, trying not to appear on the defensive.
“Of course” he assured me “if he makes it through the next hour it will take us to get him upstairs. I’ll leave you with him for a bit if it’s OK. He is a little drunk but conscious.” The physician walked away, drawing the curtain around us as he left. I did not expect him to return anytime soon.
I looked at the old man. He was gaunt and unshaven, but he had an aura of respectability about him. His eyes were fully open, and I suspected he had heard the previous conversation.
“I’m a Rabbi. Rabbi Schwartz” I opened.
“Sorry, Rabbi. I’m not Jewish.” His words were slow and deliberate.
“It’s OK. I have some time.”
“I don’t— think I do” he responded. “You’ll have to do.”
“Yes. I have to tell you about it. Someone has to know the truth.” The old man’s voice was ragged, more urgent. He was more articulate than I had first suspected. Some college professor with amnesia? On the road because of some horrible mix-up? There was apparently something important he wanted to share with me before his death.
“Golf” he muttered “Golf envy and fools’ pride…that did it.”
“Golf?” I must have shown my surprise that he could be talking about golf under these circumstances.
“Yes,” he went on, “a golf game with the Devil himself.” His body trembled, and I wondered if he might be having yet another heart attack, but he continued with what he was telling me. Caught up in curiosity, I let him go on with his story uninterrupted.
“There were three men” he began as though he was about to relate a fable. “They all belonged to the same golf club. Every year, one or the other of them was league champion. It kind of rotated around and neither of the three could really hold on to the trophy more than one year at a time. Sometimes they played each other as a twosome or threesome just to try to get short-term bragging rights around the club lounge. But they were all close to par players, and one couldn’t get much over another for more than a round at a time. It got to be a matter of considerable envy and wounded pride with all three, but each of them tried not to let on; each just kept acting like, if a real ‘do-or-die’ championship came along, then he, himself, would be the victor.
The old man paused. A rattling cough squeezed through his lips and it took him a moment to continue. His face was a picture of pain. His story seemed unimportant in light of his medical concerns.
“I was one of them. My name is Joe—Joseph Darwin. I was a dentist in Wyoming. Cheyenne. It was a long time ago, now. I was forty-eight when we did it. Anyhow, we got to verbally jabbing at each other around the card table one day when no one else was in the club lounge; arguing as to how we should have a real showdown round some time: decide once and for all, who was best at the game. That’s when Sam Golden…he was a big real estate developer…Sam said something that we took at first to be a joke. He said we should play a round and bet our life on it, a sort of “This is Your Life” round with the ultimate penalty at stake. His suggestion was that the high scorer would lose and be killed by the other two, secretly, at some unknown time after the round.”
I broke my silence in astonishment.
“He wasn’t serious, of course?”
Joe Darwin’s voice was low and unsure, almost as though he himself still could not believe the veracity of his own story.
“Yes, Sam was serious. I always thought he had a sadistic streak in him. I knew it on that day. His suggestion was unthinkable, and yet…and yet, God help us… we played that round the next day. We played eighteen holes for a human life. Oh, of course, I don’t think Doc Johnston or me really believed we were doing it for a real life. Sam did, though. I’m convinced he had sold his soul to the Devil to be a winner in that round of golf. I believed it halfway through the round, and I still believe it now. God, save my soul for what I got involved in that day!”
Suddenly, I felt sick, not wanting to hear the rest of this story. For a moment, I wondered if the old gentleman was hallucinating. I listened anyhow, wondering if he would die before he finished what he had to say. I thought he might just be drunker than he sounded. Strangely, the noisy activity of the Emergency Room had ended, and I thought most of the staff must have gone to lunch. The world shrunk to the few feet inside the curtain that surrounded us.
He went on. “A day of darkness. A day that should be wiped off the book of time! We all played the first three holes at par. It was a struggle for both Doc and me. Doc got off a bad tee shot right off the gun and had to come out of the rough with a long iron to stay in it. I remember we laughed at him at the time. I had trouble keeping up too. Over-pitched the green trying to stay out of the pond in front of number three; only a great chip, two inches from the cup, saved my par. Sam, though, played like he was in the U.S. Open. Smoother than I ever saw him. It was about the fifth hole, I think, when I realized what it was all about. Sam teed off first, straight and long. By that time, the Doc and I were already a stroke down. Well, Sam turned around from that tee shot and stared at the two of us as he spoke. His voice…God, I remember how it sounded… like some low earthquake rumble beneath the very ground we were standing on. He looked straight at us there on the side of the tee box and said he wondered which of us would get the thrill of killing someone, and which of us would feel the stark fear of dying when the time came. That’s when I began to know what we were really doing out there. My first inclination was just to tell him to lighten up, but I was caught in some kind of hold over my senses. Something I couldn’t control. I just kept thinking I could beat that son-of-a-bitch if I kept calm and played the kind of game I was capable of playing. I wanted to beat him too. Real bad. More than I had ever wanted anything. Besides, when he had first talked about it, he had made a point of how Doc and I wouldn’t really have the guts to play a round for high stakes, and how…if we did, and one of us quit…that person ought to be declared the loser by default. Sam Golden wanted to know what it was like to kill another human being. He intended to win that golf game, and I think he intended to kill one of us from the very beginning. Of course, as I thought about it later, neither Doc nor I had taken it too seriously at first, so we hadn’t told anyone about it. Leastwise, I don’t think Doc said anything. Going out that morning, I joked to my wife that we were going to play like our life depended on it…to try to beat the other two…so if I didn’t come home it would be because I lost. At the time, I thought I was joking.
Well, by the time we got to number 16, a par five, Doc and Sam were tied at four over par. They had me down a stroke. The hole went out about 150 yards or so and then turned ninety degrees left. If you tried to go over the corner or cut it off too sharp to get around it, you could get into some heavy tree growth over there. So it was really best played as a seven iron shot out to the corner and then a long three- wood to the green or front of the green. The trouble was, there were bunkers on the front and right, and a drop off into heavy weeds in back of the hole. Sam went out to the far side of the fairway, well past the corner but still playable. Doc played the corner short and then, on his second shot, had to pitch up short again to get around the corner.”
Darwin’s eyes were closed. He was obviously reliving the scene before continuing his slow monotone.
” I was having trouble, now, keeping myself steady. I figured I better try to hit a chancy high shot over the trees to the other leg of the fairway. That way I would have a chance for a birdie and make up the stroke on the other two. I got it high but too short, dropping it into the tree growth and rough grass over on the left of the fairway corner. Doc gave me a frightened look. Sam just smiled a little sneer that seemed to imply that he was going to enjoy watching me plead for my life. I hated his guts from that moment. Even after all these years, and what later happened to him, I still don’t think I could ever forgive him for what he did to poor old Doc Johnston and me. I know I’m going to Hell soon, but I know for certain Sam got there ahead of me. I’m going to see that man burning in Hell’s flames if they’re really there like people say. God, Rabbi, I know I should be forgiving, but when you hear me out, you’ll know why I feel this way.”
“Maybe you should give yourself some time,” I said. “Time to decide if this is something you really should be talking about or…”
“No time–no time left” he replied, holding his chest with both hands. “Someone must know the awful truth.”
I waited without responding. Laughter filtered in from the golf green across the street. There were no other sounds around us. It was as if all emergencies had been suspended and the hospital staff had been called into an assembly in some other part of the building. As the laughter faded, silence again surrounded the two of us.
Darwin struggled to begin again. In spite of his pain, the man seemed anxious to describe every moment in his memory. Detail seemed vitally important to him.
“It took Doc a bogey to get down. Sam made a birdie four. That put Doc five over and Sam three over par. Me, I was buried in rough. Took me two sand wedge shots to get back on the smooth fairway and three more to get down. That left me six over and a stroke behind Doc. I managed to par the short three-seventeenth while Doc bogeyed again and Sam finally fell apart. Sam dropped his tee in the stream to the right of the green and had to take a drop. Then he chipped his wet ball off to the left, leaving himself a thirty-yard chip and run. He was furious! He chipped short and putted it long, finally making a six. That put Sam up to six over, along with Doc and me. So we were all even going to the par four eighteenth. I think all three of us were coming apart inside by then. We all knew it was for keeps. Every man had convinced himself that the others were capable of complicity in icing the loser. Something awful and evil had us in its grip. Even I knew that the idea of actually killing a man like Sam would have a certain chilling satisfaction for me. If I hadn’t been so nervous, I probably would have begun to think about how I might do the deed. But, I was too tense; too wrapped up in how not to be left holding the high score card. ”
Joe Darwin paused, closing his eyes as though he might not continue his story. He took a long, labored breath before continuing.
“Amazingly, Sam birdied the final hole and Doc managed to get down in par. My putt to save par was only a foot or maybe an inch more. I figured that the Lord himself had saved us from our own folly. Doc and I would tie for second, leaving no single loser. I took a long breath, really more a sigh of relief, and putted. The ball rolled straight to the cup edge–then, I still don’t know why– it must have hit some little piece of dirt or something. It rolled over the right edge of the rim and came to rest three inches beyond the hole. I had a bogey!”
The curtained cubicle was deathly silent. There was no noise from the street outside. Joseph Darwin lay on the stretcher with his eyes again closed and an IV tube running over the edge of his pillow. Bubbles inside the plastic tube pushed back and forth, and I couldn’t tell if the device was delivering life fluid or taking it away.
“What did you do?” I finally asked quietly. His eyes opened, but they were blank and empty. He stared at the ceiling tiles surrounding the light over his head.
“Nothing, I didn’t do anything at first. We just all walked away without saying a word. Got in our cars and drove off. That night I couldn’t sleep. I knew that sometime in the near future Sam would actually kill me, even if he had to kill Doc first and finish me off alone. If I went to the police, Sam would just deny it was anything but a joke. By that time, I was convinced that even Doc could not be trusted. Around two that next morning, I packed a small bag and left a note for my wife saying that I was having some terrible anxiety and needed to think some things out. I told her I would return in a day or two. I left my car in a shopping mall lot and hitchhiked to Bozeman over in Montana where I got a motel room. It was about two days later when I read about my wife’s death. She had been found shot to death in bed with Doc Johnstone. The police, of course, were looking for me.
I figured Sam must have been plenty pissed I had skipped town. He probably had not trusted Doc to go along with him, or maybe Sam just wanted to be sure his deal never leaked out. He must have killed Doc first and planted him at my house when he killed my poor Evelyn as a substitute for me. I guess I went into shock or something. I hit the road for awhile, pretty much laying low, staying on the rail beds and in hobo camps.” He paused.
“You must have been devastated, losing your wife and being afraid to go home,” I said.
Darwin didn’t answer. He went on with his story.
“I lost my wife, my life, everything. Time seemed to just not matter. Things drifted along like that for a couple of years before I learned something more about Sam. I had picked up a USA TODAY somewhere and saw a small item about him running for state senator. Can you imagine? Letting Satan himself into the state senate?
” Well, I guess it was only three months or so after that I was crossing Wyoming like I forced myself to do a couple of times, when I read about Sam dying the day before in a fiery car explosion only about a mile down the road from the golf course. The newspaper reported that the police had figured it was some kind of gas tank default. That was a cover-up of course. They must have known somebody had killed Sam. I think the police suspected it was some sort of time bomb put there by someone who knew his habits and knew he would be at the country club that day.” Someone with enough technical precision to put together a timing device.”
“So he died while you were missing.” My voice sounded as tired and strained as his had been.
“I didn’t say that.” He clutched at his chest. I jumped up, startled, at the sudden realization he was having another heart attack.
“I’ll find the doctor…”
“No… I don’t want…me…no matter..” His face twisted in torture as he half raised up. His hollow eyes fixed on my own, and I saw a mixture of unimaginable horror and grief in their depths. I tried to say something that would reassure him in this final moment of his life.
“You alone survived,” I said, “In the end, you were the real winner.”
His head sunk to the pillow and his hands relaxed on his chest. For a moment, I thought he had died, but then he spoke.
“No, Rabbi” his voice was soft, almost distant.
“No. You see, I went back to Cheyenne for Sam. I had to get some final compensation for all he had done to me, to Doc, and to my–my poor innocent wife. I knew I had to keep that evil man out of a position where his influence could spread. At the time, I thought I had nothing more to lose. It was me that made that bomb, Rabbi.”
Fear gripped his face. He took a long, indrawn breath, making a sucking sound as he muttered his final words.
“That’s when I became the real loser.”
I came out of the hospital into the colors and sounds of early autumn. Still in a daze, I leaned against my car and took in a deep breath of the crisp, life-giving air. Across the street, on the club’s third green, a golfer shouted gleefully as he sunk a long putt in front of two unbelieving companions. His words shot across the street, ringing in my ears like six bullets fired at point blank range.
“Bet that kills you guys, huh?”