Windmills

Second place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2011. WINDMILLS by Paul Skenazy         Aunt Rebecca was dying.  No one near her would say that, at least out loud, at least to me.  I don’t know what my mother or her other sister Gladys said to each other over the phone, arranging who would be over at Aunt R’s to help out one day to the next.  Or what they said to their mother, Grandma Ann, who was dealing with her own health problems, hips and legs aching so much she couldn’t shop for herself anymore.        But we all knew, I think.  I knew anyway, much as I denied it, held back saying it even to Peter, lying next to me in bed, sympathetic as a husband can be.  Peter was older, had gone through all this himself—father, mother, aunts, even a couple cousins already.  So I knew he knew, knew he’d understand, knew he did understand when all I said to him that spring was that I had to go down there, to L. A., to visit Aunt R at least once a month, every month, long as I could.  That’s all I said, and he went to get his calendar, to pencil in weekends, the dear, knowing I didn’t want to fly down, knowing I wanted him around, knowing I’d be too tired to drive both ways and get myself to work on a Monday.       That’s how the miniature golf began.  It was Peter who pulled off the road the first time, in Sunnyvale, when we passed the course with its giant windmill advertising the obstacles and I said, "You know, Aunt R used to be the Southern California miniature golf champion when she was younger."       That’s all I said, and before I knew it we were parked and looking up at the sign for the course.  It wasn’t crowded.  There was a foursome we caught up to after six holes who let us play through.  We’d both played before, but not for years, and we were awful—I took a ten on one hole, and had a lot of sevens and eights.  But I had a hole in one too, and Peter had two par threes and a birdie to go with his sixes and sevens.  We were back on the road in just over an hour even with the Pepsis we drank after.       I told my aunt when we saw her and she laughed as I described not being able to figure out the windmills, getting the ball into the wrong chutes, and putting uphill and watching the ball roll down, down, down, again and again.  She gave me a couple tips, especially about not aiming straight but going for bank shots and how to work sloped curves.  So on the way home, I insisted we stop at another course, this time in Pismo.  And I scored better.  A little better anyway.  Slower going.  Sunday afternoon, hot outside, lots of families, lots of yelling kids.  No tens this time, though three eights.        That’s how it began, my career in miniature golf.  Depending on which highway you take, there are anywhere from two to five courses between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  By October, when Aunt R finished her second round of chemo, I’d played them all, many seven or eight times.  Peter played them too, though by late August he was bringing along a book and sitting in the car for the hour or so it took me.  He’s never been too into improvement.  He figures something out more or less, he likes it or not, plays it once in awhile or not, and that’s enough.  Decent tennis partner, can throw a Frisbee, ride a surfboard in low waves, catch a fly ball, hit six of ten free throws, jog a couple miles or even more if pressed.  I joke with him about that a lot, the way he just settles, and he just smiles, and nods, and settles.       I like to get things right, really right.  And when someone’s dying who you love, you’ve got to change your life somehow, it’s that simple.        So I recorded my scores, talked to my aunt, read up on the game, studied the courses, bought myself a putter for our trips.  I was getting so I thought about entering tournaments, going pro.  Not much money in it anymore, like there used to be in the ‘50s, but still you could pay your way if you were good, I heard.  And by then Aunt R had pulled out her old albums that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid.  There she was—fancy shorts with cuffs, the crease neat as a ruler; ironed blouse; hair puffed up.  She stood holding a trophy in a few, leaning with casual pride on her putter in a bunch of others.  You could see the deep greens of the fake grass behind her, mixed with bits of false roofs and metal loops, like a toy city.  I even got her to talk about the tournaments on tape, so I’d have something to listen to later—how she would  borrow the car and her and my mom and Gladys would head off to Palm Springs or somewhere for a weekend.  They would mention some guy’s name, some Warner, or Randy, or Sherwin, and I’d catch a look from one or the other, or maybe a giggle, and I knew there was more to their golf game than I’d ever know.       But I learned enough.  In the family stories, aunt R was the smart one.  The one who had a career after school, who traveled the world.  Two divorces, two kids, no regular man around, didn’t let anything slow her down.  While mom had me and stayed with my dad more or less happy, more or less not.  And Aunt G still did the books for Uncle Ken’s furniture store, and took two days a week off to play with her grandkids.       We’d practice together, me and Aunt R, days when she was strong enough, her testing me in the living room on the rug to see if I could make the ball go where I wanted when:  eight inches, four feet, into a glass, between two bowls, around chair legs.  We laughed a lot those months, and so did mom and Gladys, all of us wishing we’d been around to see her play more, play longer, play with more Sherwins and Stuarts, play some course where the windmills turned randomly, in both directions. And all you had were your instincts to help you get the ball to go where you wanted it to.  Like we want to be able to do, forever.    

 

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