Back in my room I drank a few more beers and watched TV. I was buzzed and wired, so I decided to take a walk to try to clear my head. I found myself headed in the direction of my grandfather’s place, and as I got close I could just make out the light poles and some of the hazards on the rooftop. Mernie’s was locked up, but looking in the windows I could see from the illuminated clock behind the bar that it was almost two o’clock in the morning.
I fumbled for my grandfather’s keys in my pocket and somehow managed to open the door to the stairwell outside his apartment. I climbed the stairs in the dark and knocked on the door to his place. I had the key in my hand, but I knew that Santo would be there. Before I could knock a second time he opened the door. He was wearing full-length long underwear, and the apartment behind him was completely dark.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” I said.
“It’s ok,” Santo said. “I’m a light sleeper. I heard you coming up the stairs.” He opened the door for me. “Come in.”
“Do the lights on the roof still work?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “I suppose some of them still do. They haven’t been used much since the last time they were changed.”
“Why don’t you throw on some clothes and come up on the roof with me,” I said. “I’ll kick your ass on the golf course.”
Santo shook his head, chuckled, and turned around and disappeared back into the apartment. A light popped on in the bedroom and he called out to me, “I’ll be just a minute.”
He reemerged a moment later wearing something that looked like a snowsuit. “There’s some beer in the refrigerator,” he said. “Would you like one?”
“What’s one more at this point?” I said, and Santo grabbed a couple beers from the refrigerator, handed one to me, and we went across the hall.
I managed to find the right key on the second try. We stepped into the dark office and Santo flipped a couple light switches on the wall. He gestured at the rack of putters. “As Charlie used to say, pick your weapon.” We each chose a club, Santo grabbed a basket of balls, and we headed up the short flight of steps to the roof. “Cross your fingers,” Santo said.
We stepped into a scene that was straight out of a lost Fellini film. The moon was hanging directly over the roof, and every one of the floodlights was blazing brightly. There were also stringers of colored bulbs hung between the light poles all around the perimeter of the roof. The course looked magnificent, almost like a sculpture garden that was the work of an outsider artist. The clear sky and bright moon, combined with the fuzzed dazzle of the rooftop lights and a few swirling scarves of the omnipresent Bryton fog gave the whole thing a weird feel that was somehow incredibly sharp and crepuscular at the same time. You could also see the whole town stretched out below, running all the way out to the river and the bluffs on the other side.
While I was standing there gawking and taking in this scene, Santo was making his way from hole to hole with some sort of squeegee, moving the remaining standing water and slush to the drains along the edge of the roof. He worked pretty quickly, and when he was finished he actually started going back over the course with a stiff broom.
“That’s fine,” I said. “Let’s play. You can go first.”
Santo put aside the broom, took up the putter, and tossed a ball down at the first hole. He bent over his putter intently and actually took a few practice swings. He presented a laughable figure, standing up there at two-thirty in the morning in his bulky snowsuit and eyeballing a putt. “It’s a surprisingly tough course because of the way the roof is banked to shed snow and rainwater,” he said. “The roof rolls, so the ball will break in all sorts of unexpected ways. You have to make constant adjustments. I haven’t played in years.”
His first putt was too hard and ricocheted off the sideboard with a wicked backspin before rolling backwards well short of the entrance to a sort of metal curlicue maze that funneled the ball to the hole. I attempted a deliberate bank shot, and ended up outside the maze and behind the hole. I was fucked, and wasted six putts going back and forth before I even got in a position where I was lined up with the entrance to the maze. Santo, on the other hand, nailed the hole on his fourth try.
By the time we were on the fifth hazard –which involved sending the ball up a ramp in a rocket and getting it to roll back down a zigzagging slide— I was already sixteen strokes behind and Santo had putted for par on every hole.
I was flailing and trash talking, which seemed to both amuse and embarrass Santo. “I helped build this course and I’ve played it a thousand times,” he said. “I have an unfair advantage.”
“Don’t patronize me,” I said. “It’s not too late for me to kick your ass.”
It was, of course, much too late for me to kick Santo’s ass. I was drunk and it was the middle of the night, and I was up there on a roof in the middle of nowhere, getting schooled on a mini golf course by a little old man in a snowsuit.
By the end I was starting to suspect that Santo was intentionally muffing putts in an attempt to let me gain some ground, but it didn’t matter. He’d gotten so far ahead that I’d stopped keeping my own score. I know, though, that on some of the later holes I was taking upwards of fifteen attempts to get the damn ball in the hole. It was a surprisingly tough course. I couldn’t possibly have been that drunk or that bad.
On the second to last hole –which involved rolling the ball over a little speed bump and through the archway of a windmill—Santo aced it on his first putt and I threw my club in the air and surrendered. I collapsed on a bench against the back wall and Santo came over and, without a trace of irony, shook my hand. “Good game,” he said.
“Good game, my ass,” I said. “I never should have left my motel room.”
“Thank you anyway,” Santo said. “It was enjoyable.”
I laughed. “Yes,” I said. “It was. Thank you for getting out of bed and humoring me.”
We went back downstairs, placed our putters back in the rack, and shut out the lights. I said goodbye to Santo in the entryway outside the apartment and he once again shook my hand.
“David,” he said. I was pretty sure it was the first time he’d called me by name. “Do you prefer David or Dave?”
“I don’t really have a preference,” I said. “Pretty much everyone has always called me David.”
“Well, David, thank you again for coming.”
He was looking at me with that oddly flat stare, and I still couldn’t quite get a complete read on the man. I decided he was decent though. And I think he probably had plenty of reasons to be wary, or even afraid, of me.
“I’m glad I came,” I said. “Get some sleep.”
He gave me an awkward pat on the back and I went back down the stairs and out into the early morning.
It was after four o’clock when I got back to my motel room, and I was too wired to sleep. I surfed through channels on the TV and drank the last three lukewarm beers that were floating in a bag of melted ice in my bathtub. I realized that I was dealing with things that could conceivably drag on forever. And I kept going back to the paperwork the woman at the hospital had given me; I kept turning to the last page. The cause of death was quite clearly listed as cancer, and when I had asked her where he had died she had told me, “He died at home. In his sleep.” That wasn’t, of course, what Santo had told me that first night I’d met him outside my room.
As I finally drifted off to sleep, I was pondering the laziest, most chickenshit way out. I was ready to get in my car and drive away.