“Got a good one for you,” Lyle said. We were sitting in the mottled green light of the covered veranda of the clubhouse at the Teeswater Hills Golf Club. The August afternoon on which we found ourselves stranded followed the end of a humid and joyless round of golf with a pair of chartered accountants, father and son. The banter had been insincere. Afterward our wives had come to meet us for drinks. Poofy clouds of dark mauve blew in over the back nine, and the day was like a good hat with the shape all gone out of it.
“A good one,” I said.
“Don’t, please,” said his wife Marian.
“No, you’ll like this one too,” he told her, then rubbed his cheek which, like the rest of him, was indistinguishable from a sheet of parchment paper. He started in: “There’s a guy. Good guy. Or average guy, anyway, like any of us. Flawed. Known his share of personal pain. Maybe he’s been predeceased by a child or a wife or a lover or a sibling. This guy — we’ll call him Randolph — walks into a bar.”
“Oh, this one,” said Marian.
“You shush now,” said Lyle. My wife Hazel returned just then from a bathroom break. “Oh, good,” said Lyle. “You’re just in time for the entertainment.”
Lyle often referred to himself as “the entertainment” because he was a piece of driftwood from a time when such things as smiles and jokes were valued as real and vital components of social interaction. This was before data plans. In the modern world his milieu had contracted somewhat dramatically, and he was really only appropriate in three settings: at a nearly-empty deli (serving up puns to the counter staff while circuitously ordering a sandwich at 11:00 a.m.), the waiting room of an optometrist’s office (where he was the personification of the Reader’s Digest humour column), and the nineteenth hole of a golf course (not the golf course itself, mind you; he was a terrible golfer, with a swing like a man trying to heave some crucial piece of evidence over a short wall).
Time in his presence was a chore, like playing golf, but I undertook both for the same reason, namely an asymmetric sense of loyalty to my father, who taught me my swing and who used to appreciate all of Lyle’s material when they were peers in the travelling corps of the Seagram’s empire’s sales team, hawking liquor accounts to country clubs and taverns and music palaces in an area roughly bordered on three sides by the Great Lakes and by the Arctic Circle to the north. It was an occupation which rewarded their natural buffoonery and polyester charm like something of a currency, and if there’s ever been an easier job on this planet, then my dad didn’t know about it. If he had found it, he’d have handed his notice to Mr. Bronfman himself.
“The bartender, who’s a Hessian, says, ‘We’re closed.’ Only Randolph, as we’ve named him, doesn’t hear. Too lost in thought. Or maybe grief, or he’s lovelorn.” Lyle broke off then and stared at the incoming front making a lilac-coloured bruise in the turbulent air over the ancient willow by the fifteenth fairway. “Now hold on,” he said. “I need to back up and tell you about the Hessians, don’t I?”
I should note that every conversation with Lyle proceeded from the understanding that he knew more than you about everything, or at least was to be treated as if this was true, though it generally wasn’t. Still, his ability to generate accord with this premise was admirable. Somehow everybody knew to play along, even folks who’d never met him, like the deli staff or the optometrist’s receptionist.
I blame Marian, an honourable woman who so loved her husband that she never held him to account, never pointed out the disparity between the truth and Lyle’s retellings. In place of a life, the man had authored a picaresque, and she was too amused by the bedazzled version to offer retort. My mother, never recognized as the saint she was, referred to Lyle always as von Munchausen. That was about the size of things.
“Do I have to produce a map or do you know where the Kasseler Kuppe is?” He held up his right hand, the fingers extended but pressed tightly together. “Germany,” he said, then with his left index he pointed to a spot near the base of his ring finger. “There. Big mountain in the state of Hesse. Lovely. Alpine meadows, wildflowers, I don’t know, bears probably, some pretty birds, maidens serving big steins of beer.”
“That’s where they come from. Only they don’t stay there. They’re an army for hire.”
“Helped the Brits in the Revolutionary War, if you can imagine.”
“Everybody’s got a price, I guess, even you. But you can imagine how Randolph would have felt about this.”
“Randolph in the joke?”
“Oh, right, you need some more dope on him too,” Lyle said, wiping his dry hands on the thighs of his golf slacks and waving a finger at a waitress, then making a circling motion, indicating our table’s need for another round of gin and tonics. Marian sucked at her front teeth, producing a soft but high-pitched noise, much like the one lobsters make as they are dropped into the pot.
Lyle went on. “Randolph’s people were colonists. They fought alongside Washington. The bar’s in Boston. Did I mention that? Boston, Massachusetts.” The first hiccups of thunder reported seemingly without lightning, buried deep within the marrow of those clouds, which had overtaken the flag on eighteen and were about to swallow the clubhouse like a martini olive. “So Randolph doesn’t hear the Hessian bartender because he’s lost in his own thoughts, thoughts both wild and regretful. There’s a lot more to tell you about Randolph and the life he lived, but we’ll have to leave it at that for now. But the bartender, who’s polishing a glass in the manner of all bartenders throughout history, is annoyed that he hasn’t been heard, so he repeats himself. ‘We’re closed,’ he says again. And then Roberts —”
“Right. What did I say?”
“No, it’s Randolph. Randolph says . . . he says . . . Jesus.” Lyle began to look lost then, in a way which tugged upon the frayed edges of my sympathy, because time is the predator stalking each of us, inescapably, and I shuddered at the notion of one day soon sitting where Lyle was now slumped, pathetically. “Damn it, Marian,” he said. “I don’t remember the rest.”
“Oh, if you gave me all afternoon I could probably come up with it for you,” Marian said, shuffling through the disorganized card catalogue of memory. The rain came just then, falling in heavy splashes on the perfect bluegrass and then racing up toward the clubhouse, where it began to plink and splat on the long awning over our heads.
“Oh wait, I’ve got it,” said Lyle, a smile coming wetly to the corners of his mouth, but before he could produce another syllable there came a change in the way the air felt upon our skins.
The arm of lightning was miraculously beautiful, blue and green, jagged but fluid. I have added it to the list of horrors and wonders I would describe if I had the opportunity to speak at my own memorial service, along with first kisses, perineal massage, strawberries the size of your fist, and a three-legged horse I once met in Miramichi. The bolt reached down from within the cloud and grazed the top of a nearby tamarack before forking off toward us, as if to resolve some personal business. Simultaneously my eardrums split open while my retinas seared. The discharge seemed to die in mid-air, pausing as though it had forgotten itself. Then it was gone.
Meanwhile, the tamarack had split along an invisible fault which ran its length, from dizzying tip down into its very roots, and the greater half was falling directly toward us. It tore through the awning and crushed a lattice screen hung with trumpet vine, as well as an unoccupied table, before coming to rest with a sound I thought underwhelming, considering. It was close enough to me that I could feel its soft needles against my hot cheek. Marian said only, “Oh,” and I saw that the tree had put an end to the story of Randolph and the Hessian, as well as to Lyle, though if he’d had a chance to finish the joke I’m certain I’d have only laughed out of a desire to appear polite.