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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Last Round

A short story about golf, obsession, and change.

“Fore!” he hollered, and the figures in the distance limped away into the trees. David McAllister wiped his brow with one of the his-and-hers argyle face towels he’d received for his 30th wedding anniversary. The wife was gone, but the towel was still good. McAllister took a moment to appreciate the sun’s scorching rays. It must have been about 100 degrees, and not a single cloud in the sky. It really was shaping up to be a beautifully hot day, just like yesterday, and just like every other day of that summer.

A thought prickled at the back of his mind: Shaun would have loved this weather. When Shaun was a small boy, right from the time he could walk, there wasn’t a single sunny day that went by where he wasn’t swimming lengths in the pool, or shooting hoops with his friends. A natural athlete, just like his old man! Although David himself had never been on a sports team, per se. He just wasn’t a team sort of fella. In high school—all the way back in the Stone Age, as he used to tell Shaun—he’d been a champion football player, but ended up quitting in his senior year. Yes, football was a blast, but being on a team brought on all sorts of stress. Suddenly you couldn’t just have fun anymore, because instead of fun, you had obligations. Do this, practice that, show up on time, don’t let down the others. Where was the fun in that? What’s more, you had to spend all that time with people you didn’t choose, and often people from those parts of town, as his mother had put it. (God rest her soul, McAllister thought. The things she said weren’t exactly the kind of things you were meant to say socially, but she was from a different generation and there was no point arguing with her about it. And besides, she was just saying what everyone was thinking.) 

No sir-ee, David McAllister was not a team player. He was more of a self-made man, a rugged individual, a leader of men rather than a face in the crowd. But he always thought of himself as an athlete, all the same. He just preferred sports where you played solo, man against man, in a grueling, no-holds-barred competition for the top spot—that was the American way! That’s why for him, the ultimate game was golf. No team, no relying on other people. Just you and your clubs and your caddy and your cart. 

(Well, there were no caddies at Las Palmas Golf Resort and Spa. Not anymore. But it couldn’t be helped—good-quality staff were thin on the ground these days. No wonder the course was looking a little…under-maintained.) 

McAllister selected a five-iron and lined up his shot, relieved that the weird figures further up ahead had hurried away. What were they doing, anyway? He highly doubted they were members. Dagsby, the old club president, would never have stood for this sort of thing. If Dagsby had seen interlopers on the course he would have had them all shot. Of course, he would have lacked the strength to pull the trigger himself, given that he was 94 years old when circumstances had forced him to retire. But until all that…unpleasantness, age had never stopped him from presiding over the club with the vigor, passion and discipline which that sacred position required. Truth be told, McAllister missed Dagsby almost as much as he missed his own son. 

(Whack, went the club.)

Not just Dagsby, either. Though Las Palmas was still a first-rate course, McAllister couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t quite the same without his buddies. He missed Johnson, who always had a new set of knee-slapping jokes every week. (Sometimes they were a little un-PC, but frankly people needed to lighten up about that type of humour. Johnson was an equal-opportunity offender. Sometimes he even told jokes about Scotsmen, and McAllister was part Scottish himself, yet he didn’t mind at all.) He missed Jimmy Carsdale, whose wife made world-beating lasagna, and whose mistresses never minded if you took a peek down their blouse. He even missed Bobby O’Shea, even though the rat bastard had cheated him out of the club championship title two years in a row. Sometimes, when he played this course, he felt a sharp needle of pain, in a place that wasn’t his knee or his back or his messed-up left foot, and he realized for an ice-cold moment that he was lonely.

Still, there was no point complaining (as he’d said to his family countless times). Things were the way they were, and you couldn’t make them be any other way, even if you tried. And besides, why gripe when the sun’s out? McAllister fed his club back into the bag and hauled himself into the cart. He turned the engine on, beaming with pleasure as the rat-a-tat faded into a faint little purr. As he drove on to meet his ball, he started drumming his own little tune on the steering wheel, though he kept having to stop to mop the sweat off his brow. A real scorcher, yet again. Yes, it really was a beautiful day.

“What the fuck does he think he’s doing?”

“Ssshhh, keep it down. He’s going to hear you.”

Foxtrot put down the binoculars, gesturing to Bravo that he needed water. Bravo looked at him with silent fury. Foxtrot had already drunk his own daily allowance of water, and now he was after hers? It wasn’t her fault if he couldn’t manage himself. Four moderate sips for breakfast, then two sips every three hours. Everyone knew the score.

“Pleeeeeaaase, B. I’m so thirsty.”

“Foxtrot, we’re all fucking thirsty.”

“Just a mini-sip. C’mon. I’ll trade you some of my protein powder.”

It was a bullshit suggestion and they both knew it. Protein powder was a useful nutrient to have on hand when rations got especially low, but it was a pain in the ass to ingest unless you absolutely had to for energizing purposes. Without water, it just became a sullen dry clump in your mouth.

No one wanted the goddamn protein powder.

Bravo rolled her eyes. “I’m never doing this for you again.” She pulled out her flask, unscrewed it, and poured one sip’s worth into the cap. She knew how much to pour, because she had marked gradations on the cap, one per sip. 

Foxtrot lifted the flask cap to his lips with both hands, holding the sip in his mouth for a few seconds before he swallowed. One time, he’d traded supplies with some guy who was Japanese-American, and somehow they’d ended up talking about Japanese tea ceremonies. The guy had explained how the central theme of tea ceremonies was appreciation, which was reflected in all the gestures and movements of the ritual. You were supposed to hold the cup with both hands, lift it with reverence, and turn it a certain number of times to show your appreciation for the beverage. Well, Foxtrot certainly appreciated his fucking beverages now.

Bravo peered through the thicket, carefully lifting a branch by the smallest possible amount. The figure had already spotted them, and screamed some unintelligible curse at them, but once they’d hurried into the trees, he hadn’t pursued them. Instead, he’d stayed where he was, at the top of the hill, looking down at the treeless stretch in front of him. 

She couldn’t figure him out, the strange figure in the colorful pants. Presumably the spot on the hill was a useful vantage point, and he was using it to survey the land and plan his next move. That made sense. But then he’d done several things that neither she nor Foxtrot could understand in the slightest. First, he’d taken a long metal object from a case, something that looked like a weapon. At this, they’d panicked, and started hurriedly discussing a counterattack plan. (They were good at counterattack plans by now—they’d been ambushed by bandits for their water and medical supplies maybe five or six times in the past year alone.) But then, instead of coming after them, the figure had swung the weapon above his shoulder and used it to hit a small object lying on the ground. The object had gone flying, and landed on flat, burned-out dirt near some sort of sand dune. (How the hell did a place like this get sand dunes, anyway? She’d heard of the dunes out east, way out where most squads never dared to go. But here they looked strange and out of place, an alien intrusion.) Then, after this bizarre display, the figure had gotten into a vehicle and driven in the direction of the small object. Bravo had seen vehicles before—their shells strewed the streets of abandoned towns and cities—but she was too young to have ever seen a working one, one you could actually drive. And weren’t vehicles usually bigger? None of this made any sense.

Bravo turned to ask Foxtrot what he made of the whole situation, only to see he was slacking off again.

“Foxtrot! Stop staring at the damn cup and get back to keeping watch. It’s not going to magically produce more water, believe me.”

“Where’s Sierra? Can’t he take over the watch? The sweat around my eyes is pooling in the binoculars, and it’s really starting to sting…”

“Don’t be such a baby. We’re in the shade here, you can’t be sweating that much. And Sierra’s not here, I sent him to scout. If there’s one of these weirdos here, who knows how many more there could be.”

Foxtrot wiped the crevices of the binoculars with his shirt, though it didn’t make much of a difference since his shirt was dripping sweat like the rest of him. Blinking the burning salt away, he pressed the binocs to his face: “Eh…looks like he’s getting out of the vehicle, and heading towards whatever that thing was…uh…looks like a ball.”

McAllister grinned to himself as he pulled his scorecard from the back pocket of his snazzy yet surprisingly comfortable pants. This was shaping up to be his best game yet! Granted, he had fudged the numbers a little on some of the earlier holes, but after all, who was to know? He could have gone three under par on hole five, if he’d really wanted to. This was the score he deserved, really, based on an objective assessment of his own abilities.

He looked at the scorecard and frowned, holding it to the unforgiving light. He knew it—cheap, poor-quality card, little better than paper. Probably made in China, just like everything was these days. He had a lot of experience with these things, since he’d been a senior manager at a paper company back in the days before the unpleasantness. He could tell the card was no good, because it was starting to turn soft and fall away in his hands. No good, no good at all! Granted, his hands were a little sweaty—well, a lot sweaty, and the corners were nearly soaked. Still, a proud American company would never have churned out this type of junk. He was frankly a little embarrassed on the part of the club, for purchasing from a sub-par supplier. He would have recommended his own company as a supplier, if the club had still been fully operating. Come to think of it, why hadn’t they used his company? Probably that bastard Bobby O’Shea had had something to do with it.

He loaded himself into the cart again, and turned on the engine. Only this time, it wouldn’t start. Rat-a-tata, rat-a-tata….then nothing. Goddammit. It was maybe the 20th or 30th cart this had happened to. Whenever a cart broke down, he just dumped it and took another one, but he was close to running out of carts. Was no one refilling the stupid things? No more carts, and no more caddies either. Really, he hated to admit it, but it was true: Las Palmas had gone downhill lately. In his darkest moments, he had even considered abandoning his membership and finding another place to play. The Grand Paradiso had an excellent course, with ocean views, and he had fond memories of playing there most of his honeymoon. (He still didn’t understand why his ex-wife had gotten so mad about that. Earlier in their wedding year she’d gifted him with a shirt that said “I’d Rather Be Golfing,” so she couldn’t exactly have been surprised that he’d wanted to spend their honeymoon on the links.)

Sighing theatrically, he lifted his clubs onto his shoulder and began trudging towards the next hole. Look on the bright side, he thought to himself. It sure was hard work carrying his own clubs in the heat, but he was still strong as a mule! And it really wasn’t that much of a chore to walk a beautiful course like this. He surveyed the vast stretches of green land before him—admittedly, somewhat less green than it used to be—and smiled. 

He thought of all the great times that he’d had in this place, and realized what a silly overreaction it would be to rescind his membership over a couple of maintenance issues. The Grand Paradiso was nice, sure, but the Las Palmas course was his home. He’d played there as a young entry-level associate, he’d played there as a reliable middle manager, and he’d played there as a beloved senior manager. He’d even been playing the day Shaun was born, and the day Shaun was taken away from him too. So, he concluded—and here he felt a strange spike of anger, a resentment pink and bubbling like a fresh burn—he’d be damned if he’d stop playing now. Leave? Leave? He would never leave. 

“I don’t get it. He hits the ball, he goes towards it, he hits it again. Sometimes he pushes it into a hole with the stick.”

“Whatever it is, doesn’t look like he’s too concerned with us.”

Still hidden in a thicket of trees, Bravo and Foxtrot were feeling a little more safe, but also increasingly baffled. The figure did not appear to be a danger to them, but they couldn’t help but be curious as to what he was getting out of the situation. And why did he never walk in the shade? Didn’t he understand the risks of heat exhaustion?

There was a rustle in the distance, and for a moment they panicked and picked up their weapons. Sights fixed, they waited, but it was only Sierra’s familiar footfall. They relaxed.

“Thank God you’re back. We were starting to worry.”

“Yeah, this place is huge, it’s fucking weird. Didn’t see anyone else though.”

“Did you find anything good? Food? Water?”

“Nope, sorry. It’s all just…open land. And sand. And some parts covered by trees, like this one.”

“Who the hell would create a space like this?”

Sierra shrugged. “Must have been designed pre-Turn. We used to have all kinds of weird shit.”

“But it was easier to plant trees back then, right? So why would they leave almost all this space open, without shade? What about heatstroke? Dehydration?”

“It wasn’t as hot back then. And there was a whole bunch of water.”

Foxtrot turned towards Sierra, while Bravo looked away. Foxtrot loved that Sierra was old enough to know this kind of stuff, clearly even envied him for it. But for Bravo, hearing about the time before the Turn was just uncomfortable. She was secretly relieved she was too young to remember it. 

Sierra leaned against a tree, looking pensive. “I dunno, it feels familiar. I think it might have been a park or something.”

“A park?”

“Yeah, like a big outdoor space for everyone to hang out in. You’d spend time with your friends, there’d be lots of flowers and grass, you could sit in the sun, play games.”

“You’d sit in the sun on purpose?” 

Ssshhh, you guys,” Bravo hissed. “You’re getting too loud.”

Foxtrot mumbled an apology through his cracked and bitten lips. Bravo was invaluable: intelligent, cautious, a good fighter. Her quick thinking and careful planning had saved his life more than once. But did she always have to be on? They were in a safe spot, and the weird guy with the stick wasn’t bothering them. All he wanted was to hear some of Sierra’s stories. Everything pre-Turn was so fascinating. A time when it was cool and watery enough that people actually enjoyed the sun? No rations, no bandits, flowers everywhere?

Sierra reached for the binoculars, which were lying discarded on the ground. The other two were familiar enough with the strange man’s patterns, and were satisfied to watch him with the naked eye. “So did you figure out who this guy is? What he’s doing?”

“He doesn’t seem to be doing anything,” Foxtrot replied. “He’s hitting a ball with a stick. Just that, over and over. Sometimes he uses the stick to push the ball into a hole.”

“Freaky,” said Sierra, but as he spoke, he started to remember something. 

“Yeah well, at least he’s not trying to hurt us. I still don’t get why the land has these big ditches full of sand though.”

Sierra’s heart dropped into his stomach. Big ditches full of sand. In the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t the first time he’d been puzzled by this. 

Daddy, what’s the sand for? Can I play in it?

That’s called a bunker, son. And no, you can’t play in it. They’re for screwing over Daddy’s golfing buddies so he can take home the big trophy.

“Y’okay, man? Sierra? Sierra, you okay? Is it heatstroke?”

“I’ve been here before,” Sierra whispered. The sounds clogged his mouth like dry protein powder. “When I was a kid. I’ve been here before.”

“You mean you were here pre-Turn? No way. So what the hell is this place? Is it a park?” 

“No. Not a park. It’s called…it’s called a golf course.”

“Golf? Like the NATO alphabet?”

“It was a game…my dad used to play it all the time…”

Foxtrot couldn’t believe it. “This whole place is for a game?”

Bravo raised an eyebrow. “Seems like a stupid game to me.”

“I didn’t realize because it looked so different…before the Turn, this was all green…these shadeless areas of dirt, they were all bright green—”

“You’re talking shit, Sierra,” Bravo interrupted. “Stop filling Foxtrot’s head with ideas. You must be misremembering—even pre-Turn there’s no way this amount of land would be set aside for some ridiculous game. I mean the sheer volume of water you’d need to keep a place like this green…”

(Foxtrot’s eyes were like saucers. So much water. So much water.)

Bravo had already turned back to studying the figure, confident that Sierra was just a little confused from the heat. But Foxtrot noticed the changes in Sierra’s face. Sierra was always so courageous, so strong, the fastest runner and the best fighter, but now he looked so weak and helpless, like a child.

 “Y’okay, buddy?” he said. “You want to sit down for a second?”

This got Bravo’s attention, and she started to worry for Sierra. He was the oldest and largest member of their party, a natural athlete, and they’d be totally screwed if he was out of action for some reason. When she looked to him, he seemed frightened and confused. He was trying to bring the binoculars to his face, but his hands were trembling.

Foxtrot didn’t know what was happening to Sierra, but he could see Sierra wanted to use the binoculars. He’d never seen the older man like this before, and it was kind of scary. On instinct, he placed a hand on Sierra’s arm, which was trembling, gently guiding the binocs towards his face. 

Sierra pressed his face against the eyepieces. “Th…that’s my dad.”

Ah, to reach the 18th hole! A real shame the clubhouse was closed, but it wouldn’t have been the same without Dagsby and the rest of his buddies anyway. David McAllister tallied up his scorecard (as much as he could, given that it was soaked through with his sweat) and took a moment to congratulate himself on a game well played. He hadn’t quite beaten his personal best, but given the ridiculous situation with the cart and the lack of caddy, it was only fair to assume he’d been distracted, put off his game. The course was looking a little worse for wear, too, like it was in need of a good watering. That couldn’t have been good for putting. The crispiness of the grass probably affected the movement of the ball. That was why hole 8 had taken him six strokes when it should only have taken five. And then there were the weird intruders he’d seen a couple of hours before. After he’d hollered at them to get out of the way—honestly, what kind of dummies wandered onto a golf course and just walked across the fairway without paying attention to their surroundings?—they’d just run off into the trees, and he hadn’t seen them since. 

Up to no good, most likely. Probably loafing around or doing drugs instead of getting a damn job. Young people, thought McAllister, had absolutely no sense of responsibility.

“When the Turn came, he couldn’t accept it.”

Sierra was looking calmer now, but still considerably worse for wear. Bravo had even given him two extra sips of water. 

“I was pretty young, so I don’t remember it that well. But whenever the topic of the Turn came up in our house, he would just go on these rants…he kept saying it was all alarmism, that the new generation were always looking for something to complain about, that they just needed to go to work and be a productive member of society, like him.”

“He doesn’t look too productive to me,” Bravo said. Foxtrot shot her a glance, and in an unusual reversal of roles, she apologized.

“And when it got really  bad…well, we just couldn’t get him to understand it. Me and my mom, we tried, but he just kept acting like everything was normal. Even when it started getting hotter, and the water started running out. Even when people started deserting their homes, even when the disasters got worse and worse…he just kept coming here, every opportunity he could. Even when the grass dried up, and the others left, and finally the whole club shut down. He would just come here and play like nothing was wrong. Eventually my mom got sick of it and we left. That was the last time I saw him, until today.”

“Jesus. But you must have been young. Are you absolutely sure that it’s him?”

Sierra nodded almost imperceptibly. “I don’t remember his face. But he’s wearing the same shirt he was wearing the day that we left him here.”

“The same shirt?”

“Yeah. My mom got it for him for Christmas one year. It says ‘I’d Rather Be Golfing. ’”

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